The Spectacular Now ★★★★

It’s clear what screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber saw in the book, The Spectacular Now, by Tim Tharp - an adaptation that would effortlessly fit with their unique voice and sentiment. Everything that they got right in (500) Days of Summer, from the sparkling sense of humour to the honest and unpatronizing portrayals of youth, is on display again here. And while it’s a far more linear story than 500 Days - one that’s, for better or worse, more obvious in its narrative - it’s still a film that connects with your emotions in the exact same way.

Pulling from a pool of young up-and-coming stars, the film’s cast includes several actors you’ll have recognized in great work before - The Descendents’ Shailene Woodley, namely, but also Brie Larson, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. But the film places its focus squarely on an actor you’ve probably never seen before, and certainly one you’d never have noticed before: Miles Teller. His portrayal of protagonist, Sutter, is wonderful here, and with almost none of the cliché trappings of high school plot archetypes - you won’t find bets placed on whether he can woo the class outcast, nor is there any great expositional revelation or magical coming-of-age moment - his journey is one as much of self-realization as it is self-admission.

Sutter’s problems are readily apparent and darkly foreboding. We can tell pretty quickly that his vice will be the rope that will form a noose sooner than it will a lifeline. But the film is grounded so well that it recognizes that his problem with alcoholism is not at the core of his issues. It is a dependence he escapes into, a blessing and a curse - the same thing that allows him to be so charismatic and free of worry, to live in the now, is the very thing that prevents him from visualizing a future for himself or seeing a world that he can ever contribute to. As the film develops, we learn more about his fractured family situation and it’s in his attempts to reconcile his understanding of his family that he begins to see a future for himself - it’s just not a future he wants.

In his love interest, Aimee (Woodley), we get a remarkable honesty of character unlike most of what we see in cinematic adolescents. Here is a character that takes Sutter at face value. She understands his vice, and even tries to find middle-ground with him there. She recognizes his past relationship with his ex, Cassidy, and controls feelings of jealousy and envy - whether through maturity or reservedness - without ever letting her thoughts or worries come between them. But, more importantly, here’s a character that can be encouraging, supportive and comforting without ever falling into the trope of the girlfriend-who-has-had-enough - there are no lectures, no explosions of anger self-important hurt on her part. She accepts all of it. And yet never do we feel like she is subservient or unknowing. Both of these characters are deep and faceted in a refreshing way that doesn’t condescend or deign on the teenage experience.

I don’t know anything about James Ponsoldt, or his previous work in directing. But the film is beautifully shot and well put-together. There’s a craftsmanship on display here that suggests a wonderful career for everyone involved. Some of these people have already made their mark, but I would expect some fabulous things around the corner for those who have just put themselves on the map with this film.

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