Sutter Keely, an easygoing high school senior in a blue-collar Southern city, lives for the moment.
His gift is not the ability to plan or see projects through, but to make people feel better about themselves and laugh. A low-ambition charmer, he has no plan for what will happen after the last graduation party. He’s a slightly sad jester with a growing drinking habit, not entirely sympathetic and yet, in his desire to please, touching. He seems able to get along with everyone but his prickly mom, a late-shift nurse who sees in her son the makings of a glib philanderer like his deadbeat dad.
Miles Teller, who plays Sutter, shows you the guy’s insides with the flash of a nervous smile.
He gives every part everything he’s got, exposing the loneliness and isolation of a superficially popular kid. In weaker movies Teller is a show all by himself (he stole Footloose). Luckily, he gets some help here. The film is engrossing all the way through, the sweetest, saddest, most humane movie I’ve seen all year.
The Spectacular Now tells Sutter’s story with a depth of feeling, emotional subtlety and intelligence that transforms your notions about high school romances. It is as poignant as a first kiss and as painful as a first hangover. There’s strong emotion here but hardly a drop of sentimentality. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (screenwriters of the droll 500 Days of Summer) adapted Tim Tharp’s novel with an eye to humane realism. James Ponsoldt (of last year’s superb alcoholism drama Smashed) directs with an unforced naturalism and candor. It’s a fully adult drama featuring young characters.
Shailene Woodley (George Clooney’s prickly daughter in The Descendants) plays Aimee Finicky, a good-hearted A-student who gets no recognition from her peers. Working her morning paper route, she retrieves the passed-out Sutter from a stranger’s lawn, getting him back on his feet and driving him around the neighborhood in search of his car.
His effortless charisma operating on autopilot, Sutter asks her out. It’s partly because he likes her — Aimee’s mom also keeps her on a short leash with a choke collar — and partly to show he’s fine after his recent breakup with Cassidy (Brie Larson), who has already moved up to dating the quarterback.
Inexperienced Aimee is swept off her feet, and the unforced rhythms of the movie tighten up. As their flirtation begins to solidify into a relationship, the film becomes a race-against-time thriller. Can she save his life before he ruins hers?
It’s uncommon for an American film to expend so much sympathy on all its characters. There’s not a cardboard heel or mean girl to be found. When people hurt each other, it’s because they’re distracted by their pain. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Sutter’s impatient, overworked mother. Ponsoldt’s deft direction doesn’t make a big deal of her in early scenes. He frames her in long shots, taking her for granted as Sutter does. It’s only in the movie’s final passages that maturing Sutter — and we — observe her in detail.
In contrast, Kyle Chandler, who plays his father, is shot in big close-ups when the eager boy finally reunites with the long-gone man he has mythologized. Those tight shots make the bedraggled father’s distracted manner and forced bonhomie painfully clear.
The film doesn’t force any prefabricated wisdom on us, but the final shot, an unresolved moment of anxious optimism, seems to offer a moral: Seize the day. Then let it go.