Miles Teller is enormously likeable as Sutter Keely, a bright, confident high school senior who consumes alcohol with unchecked abandon. Sutter steps outside of his normal social circle to begin a relationship with shy introvert Aimee Finecky. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) is every bit as endearing as Teller in her portrayal of Aimee. Though it slips into melodrama late in its third act, The Spectacular Now is a winningly mature drama that displays enough depth to mostly transcend the trappings of typical “teen movies.”
Sutter loves life and seemingly everything in it, however small his suburban universe really might be. He lives with him mom Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an overworked nurse, and fantasizes that his deadbeat dad is a worldly airline pilot. He has a lot of friends and fancies himself Mr. Popularity, even though his ex-girlfriend Cassie’s (Brie Larson) new boyfriend Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) hits him with a dose of harsh reality. “You’re not the joke everyone thinks you are,” says Marcus, after seeking advice on how to better get along with Cassie. Though meant as a compliment, its double-edge is not entirely lost on Sutter. He masks his deep-rooted insecurities and abandonment issues with a steady intake of alcoholic beverages, pretending that the world is his oyster.
While still emotionally raw from his breakup with Cassie, Sutter takes up with Aimee and things get serious quickly. Woodley exquisitely captures the intoxicating rush of a late-bloomer receiving romantic attention for the first time in her life. She sees past Sutter’s good-natured, but mostly empty, braggadocio. She wants to be everything for him, spontaneously changing her college plans in an attempt to meld their lives. Drinking is part and parcel of being around Sutter, so Aimee (who lives with her nearly-unseen, widowed mother) goes along with it.
Having not read the source novel, I can’t speak on how well the story has been adapted to the screen. But it seems that director James Ponsoldt doesn’t quite trust that the ambling, slice-of-life plot is enough to sustain interest. A third-act car accident threatens to topple the house of cards. Though it manages to recover, some of the subtlety (the film’s greatest strength) is lost. If anything, the 95-minute running time feels a little too compact. Character arcs resolve a bit too abruptly. But for the most part, Ponsoldt, the writers, and the cast (which includes minor but memorable turns by Bob Odenkirk as Sutter’s boss, Andre Royo as his teacher, and Kyle Chandler as his dad) do everything right.
Jess Hall’s finely nuanced 35mm cinematography looks, well, spectacular on Lionsgate’s Blu-ray. The overall dark look of the presentation takes a little adjusting to. Even outdoor daylight scenes have a dusky appearance. The transfer handles the shadows well, retaining a good amount of detail (even though some is intentionally swallowed up by darkness). At its most heavily shadowed, the focus stays on the warmly-lit actors. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is a low-key affair that, given the nature of the film, strongly favors dialogue. It’s perfect for what it is, with Rob Simonsen’s score spilling into the rear channels at times. The LFE channel kicks in when needed, such as the bass-driven music at a school dance.
Special features include director James Ponsoldt’s reflective commentary, 20 minutes of deleted scenes (including some surprisingly worthwhile bits), and a standard-issue, 20-minute promotional “making of” featurette. The deleted scenes support my earlier statement that 95 minutes is too little. Aimee drops a particularly startlingly bombshell after she and Sutter consummate their relationship. A drunken blow-up between Aimee and Cassie at a school dance is essential. An awkward but emotionally-valid intervention by Sutter’s friends probably should’ve stayed in too. It’s very rare to find a deleted scenes reel full of so many enlightening moments. I almost wish some of these had been cut back into the film.
The Spectacular Now plops a bunch of ordinary characters in front of us and asks us to care about them. The main focus is Sutter, who Miles Teller (soon to reunite with Woodley in Divergent) turns into an endearing, realistically-flawed hero. Aimee, the girl so selflessly willing to compromise her dreams to make him happy, deserved a bigger share of screen time than she receives. Even so, there is a lot of beauty here.