By Carl Kozlowski
Most films that claim to have insights into the lives of teenagers aim to either portray them as vampires and werewolves, or debauched hell raisers, or super-earnest kids wrestling with minor problems, like who to take to prom. Since the heyday of John Hughes’ best teen movies in the 1980s and Cameron Crowe’s emotionally powerful classic Say Anything in 1989, no film has managed to really nail an authentic portrait of American teens—until now.
The new movie that gets it right is appropriately titled The Spectacular Now, starring rapidly rising Miles Teller (21 and Over and the 2011 Footloose remake) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) as a seemingly mismatched couple whose emotionally intense relationship helps both characters find the strength to deal with buried secrets. But rather than being as heavy-handed as that may sound, the movie blends all the mixed-up emotions of teenage life and love into a perfect combination that should stand out as both one of the top movies of 2013 and as a landmark production 20 years from now.
Now follows the story of Sutter (Teller), a popular teenager who has his world on a string—a good job and a popular girlfriend—yet hides a dangerous abuse of alcohol. When his girlfriend dumps him for being irresponsible, he notices Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a girl who’s bookish and socially inexperienced. He invites her to a party and asks her to the prom while he’s drunk, which leads her to take him more seriously than he’s comfortable with.
At first, he avoids Aimee to make her go away, but eventually he feels empty and drawn to her. The two forge a more legitimate relationship as he teaches her to drink and swear as a matter of loosening up from the tight restrictions of her mother. Both are lacking the presence of their fathers, with Sutter thinking his mother is lying to him about his father being a bad person.
While the youngsters become sexually involved, that level of their relationship isn’t exploited by director James Ponsoldt (who also directed 2012’s terrific indie film Smashed). Most of the movie focuses on their emotional connection and the encouragement they give each other to stand up for their dreams: Aimee’s dream of going away to college, in spite of her mother’s over-controlling nature, and Sutter’s hope of meeting his father.
That meeting occurs, but it isn’t quite what Sutter expects. As a result, the teenager has some hard choices to make about how he’ll live his own life. Then tragedy nearly strikes, forcing Aimee to think about her own life as well.
Teller and Woodley are spectacular in their respective roles, with performances that run the full range of emotions, and drawing the same out of audiences, if the responses from Sundance Film Festival attendees last January are any indication. Teller’s Sutter especially has the charm of a Ferris Bueller until his world comes crashing down upon him, and his switch into poignant emotion shows that he has the kind of everyman ability to be both funny and sympathetic.
Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote the similarly affecting and intelligent romance (500) Days of Summer and nearly match that achievement here, while Ponsoldt makes the allure of teen drinking powerfully shift into an extremely negative behavior by the end. Overall, The Spectacular Now is a quiet wonder, the kind of movie that can break your heart at the same it is winning it over.