When I was in my late-teens I saw a good number of teen-focused indie dramas, normally Sundance originating films. A film was able to get me to buy a ticket or DVD just by virtue of being an indie teen drama. There are plenty of films I still like from that period, and the best teen movies (Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti etc.) transcend any aging boundaries, but when I stopped being a teenager such films, perhaps unsurprisingly, began to hold less and less interest.
The Spectacular Now, a new indie teen drama that premiered at Sundance this year, begins by introducing us to its main character Sutter (Miles Teller) via a voice-over-accompanied montage. He’s a hard-partying high school senior; a charismatic guy just loves his carefree lifestyle. He’s popular in school, but in more of the class-clown way than the sports star. Unfortunately for him, his directionless worldview leads his girlfriend (Brie Larson) to break up with him. After a lot of drinking and making a minor scene at a party, he awakens on someone’s lawn at 6:00 am, where he’s met by Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s the shy, hardworking, pretty-but-plain girl he’s never noticed in school before, and ends up spending the day with.
At this point you really might think you know exactly what kind of film The Spectacular Now is probably going to be, just another nerdy girl-cool guy sappy high school romance. But it’s not that film. It really isn’t, and is so, so much better for it. I think I can say that this is the best and most affecting teen film I’ve seen since I was a teenager.
The Spectacular Now’s first half stands out by quietly subverting, but still utilising many typical high school story beats. As they date, they swap interests; she introduces him to manga, while he gives her a taste of hard liquor. When the inevitable ‘asking her to prom‘ moment occurs, one might think the film is building up to a typically big prom-set finale, but the actual prom scene is very brief, unglamorous, of little consequence, and occurs quite early on.
The romantic element of the film is deftly handled by Smashed director James Ponsoldt, not at any point does it feel contrived. Sutter and Aimee are completely believable as love interests, but also, crucially, as teenagers. Their eventual love scene is a sincere and totally cliché-free moment.
As the film progresses though, it reveals more depth; it is not so much a story of high school romance, but a character study of a troubled young adult. Realities about Sutter’s life are revealed gradually though his talks with Aimee, with the couple ultimately deciding to address their parental problems head on. This again allows the film to take both expected and quite unpredictable turns in its latter sections. Although Sutter remains the primary focus, Aimee never feels side-lined.
In making Sutter an authentic character, Ponsoldt also isn’t afraid to make him unlikeable, and he is quite that at the start. The sympathy Sutter gains throughout the course of the film is completely earned, both on the strength of the writing (from (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) and Teller’s performance. It’s not hard to imagine how portraying his arc could have backfired in the wrong hands.
It also shares a thematic connection with Ponsoldt’s previous film Smashed in Sutter’s drinking. He drinks an alarmingly large amount, often sneaking drops from a hip-flask into large soft drink cups. The film does address this, which almost amounts to alcoholism, and it leads to some of the most memorable moments, but one minor complaint with the film would have to be that the consequences of Sutter’s frequent drunk-driving feel brushed over and don’t seem to be of great concern to the writers.
The Spectacular Now is a film that portrays teenagers with a respect that’s all too rare, with a desire to explore its own territory while finding new ways to utilise familiar elements. It succeeds in elevating itself way above the vast majority of high school tales, and is boosted up by great performances, credible dialogue, and a wonderful score (by Rob Simonsen). A naturalistic and touching coming-of-age movie that reaches far beyond teenage audiences.