James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is one of those movies getting a lot of buzz here at the Sundance Film Festival. And why wouldn’t it be? It stars probable-future-Oscar winners Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley (hey, one of them already is a nominee and the other arguably should already be a nominee for his breakout role in the heart-wrenching Rabbit Hole); it has a supporting cast made up of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler; it is co-written by Ponsoldt, himself, along with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the writing duo behind (500) Days of Summer, which was coincidently their first feature script that was made into a movie and it tells a more realistic than not coming-of-age tale, promising to be relatable for most viewers. All signs point to “of course, The Spectacular Now is getting a lot of buzz.” And indeed it is.
The Spectacular Now follows Sutter (Teller), a senior in high school who is having trouble passing his classes and applying for college after his girlfriend broke up with him. But all cannot be blamed on the end of his high school relationship, because in addition to this, Sutter also has a missing-in-action father (Chandler) and an increasingly debilitating alcohol addiction. After one drunken stupor of a night, Sutter wakes up on the lawn of a mystery person’s front yard by Aimee (Woodley), who has taken over her dead-beat mother’s paper route. From there, it is fairly obvious what is going to happen: Sutter starts dating Aimee partly in an attempt to make his ex-girlfriend jealous and partly because he actually likes Aimee; and Aimee, in turn, falls hard, real hard. Aimee, the type of girl who reads graphic novels, is very book smart and does not realize how attractive she is, verifiably falls in love with Sutter. And as anyone who has ever been in a relationship can tell you: this is bad news bears. Can Sutter get his act together and let Aimee in, truly in, before breaking her heart? Well, I’m not going to ruin it for you, but you get the gist: that is the kind of movie The Spectacular Now is.
So, did The Spectacular Now live up to all the hype? Well, it definitely wasn’t a bad movie. In fact, with a compelling and, sure a little trite, plot, believable acting and likable characters, it was anything but. Miles Teller shined as the feel-good now character of Sutter and amazingly defied his true age of 26, taking over the role of a teen-ager whole heartedly and believably. Woodley too played the naïve, awkward, girl next door character of Aimee Finicky with ease, being at once both annoyingly sweet and annoyingly trusting. And then there was the supporting cast, who each gave strong performances in their roles. While both Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler were good fits, Mary Elizabeth Winstead can’t help but stand out in my mind. Whether this is because she is so darn likeable or because she gave a relatively thin character some meat is beyond me. With solid acting, these characters were able to shine within a story that, while having been told before in so many words, seemed fresh if only because it hasn’t been told well in quite a while. This being said, I would not go out of my way to call The Spectacular Now great.
The Spectacular Now was penned by the writers behind (500) Days of Summer and manages to do a similar thing in presenting likable, even relatable, characters who the audience (or maybe it was just me?) did not end up so attached to. Yes, the characters were relatable, but I did not feel the need to see them through. This is a hard thing to achieve, right? I mean if you like the characters, how do you not care about them all that deeply? I am still not sure, but I will say that the will-he won’t-he ending of (500) Days of Summer carries over to this film and I had a similar reaction when leaving this theater: that was cute, but I am not entirely invested in it and can’t really imagine thinking about it beyond someone asking me how I liked it in casual conversation.
One thing the movie did extremely well though, which has a lot to do with the script writers, is that it did not pander to the audience. And thank God it didn’t. Perhaps the only thing worse than watching a movie you feel too old to be watching is watching a movie in your age range that you feel too smart to be watching. Luckily, The Spectacular Now dodged both bullets. Instead, the movie truly gave the audience characters to identify with. While I did not care about the characters past the confines of the movie theater, I did understand the characteristics and motives driving them. More than that, even, I did relate to their not-over-the-top dialogue and did not feel as if I was watching a competition for most pop culture references in a script or, conversely, as if I was just too old to understand “kids these days.” The Spectacular Now will have no problem being watched and even enjoyed by everyone, if not most everyone. And luckily, it soon will be seen and enjoyed by most everyone as it managed to use Sundance to its advantage, coming there without a distribution partner and leaving with the company A24 attached. Well done.
All in all, The Spectacular Now, while not a perfect movie, did get a lot of things right. Surely, we have Ponsoldt, Neustadter and Weber to thank for giving us a movie that has been made before and making it feel fresh, even new; and lest us forget that the strong cast is also due some of this praise. Not everyone would be able to shine in this film. Where The Spectacular Now truly succeeds is being a movie about a generally understood teenage quest that both teenagers and adults can watch, relate to and enjoy.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars