The Spectacular Now -- To call the new movie "The Spectacular Now" " ‘Say Anything’ meets ‘Sideways’" is probably a bit too simplistic. It ends up sounding like the kind of superficial movie pitch director Robert Altman skewered so cleverly in his poisoned love letter to Hollywood "The Player" (1991).
Granted, the relative obscurity of many of the individuals involved in "The Spectacular Now" means this description does serve well as an easy shorthand description (as well as pointing out the influence filmmakers like Cameron Crowe and Alexander Payne have on the film.)
However, this comparison also ultimately proves to be too easy a description as well, for this wonderfully charming movie possesses a personality all its own. In fact, you would have to look to Cameron Crowe’s early movies to show another example of uncomfortable teenage moments being conveyed with the level of emotional honesty that we see here. It’s effective enough to easily transport anyone back to those awkward years of adolescence, and recognize them with a degree of knowing embarrassment and genuine affection.
When high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) gets dumped by his long-time girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), he figures the best way to drown his sorrows is to immediately jump into a rebound relationship. Taking good-hearted Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) under his wing with the intent of merely "helping her out," Sutter soon discovers there’s more to their relationship than he initially bargained for.
Meanwhile graduation means life outside the secure confines of their high school walls will soon become a reality, as both characters are forced to face up to the impending pressures of adult life.
A crucial ingredient that makes this film’s high school romantic elements so persuasively charming is the affection director James Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber grant their characters here. After all, Miles Teller may not immediately strike anyone as a potential heartthrob, lacking the striking good looks of your typical movie star. However watching his socially outgoing character of Sutter express himself with such self-assured ease makes his ability to win sweet-natured Aimee’s heart more than convincing.
It also grounds the film’s romance in a level of realism that deliberately forgoes the more fantastical elements of what could customarily be labeled your typical "romantic comedy." Watching these emotionally conflicted characters struggle with the painful process of moving past the high school years and into maturity reveals there’s much more here than your typical teenage romance.
Meanwhile Shailene Woodley, who proved such a natural screen presence in Alexander Payne’s "The Descendents," reveals that performance was no fluke, making the sweet-natured Aimee both a credibly flawed character and a complex individual with her own insecurities to conquer. In fact, watching Sutter slowly discover there is much more to Aimee’s character than he initially thought -- a fact that eventually challenges his initial nonchalance about their relationship -- proves to be a rewarding lesson in personal discovery.
Which is credit to the screenwriters for creating complex characters in which, the more we get to know them, and the more is revealed about them, the more we realize there’s more than initially meets the eye. The film’s character-driven screenplay manages to let us get to know these characters just a little more with each subsequent scene, until the complexity of both personalities, as well as their personal histories, paints a multi-dimensional picture that doesn’t shy away from the emotionally painful process of growing up.
Meanwhile director James Ponsoldt allows scenes play out here in real time, opting to focus as much on the characters here as the story. He generously gives the actors’ performances and their characters’ conflicted emotions time to develop and resonate before moving on to the next scene. It not only allows the movie to unfold with the natural pacing of real life, but allows us to get to know these characters on a deeper level that makes for a truly rewarding experience.
Granted, the film occasionally suffers from narrative devices that do feel a little contrived, contrasting with the naturalistic atmosphere the filmmakers manage to achieve onscreen. However "The Spectacular Now" possesses such authentic situations and credible characters that such intrusions are minor at best. In fact, the film’s story ends on a note that suggests more of a beginning, leaving you wanting to know more about what happens to these memorable characters long after the film’s end credits roll.
"The Spectacular Now" is rated R and is playing at the Colonial Theater in Keene, N.H., now for one week only. Call 603-352-2033 or visit www.thecolonial.org for details.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.