The Spectacular Now recognizes that among the many divides high school creates for kids, one in particular looms larger as graduation approaches. It’s the divide between those who can see a future for themselves and those who can’t.
This small, scruffy movie is a remarkably precise portrait of the latter sort of high schooler. Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is at the top of the world as the story starts: the beloved class jester, he has his own car, a fake ID and a hard-partying girlfriend (Brie Larson). He’s Ferris Bueller, without the initiative. And it’s that missing initiative that will be his downfall. For while his classmates begin to make plans – for college, for more promising romantic partners – Sutter declares he already has everything he needs. His friends laugh, but the laughter sounds much hollower than it did junior year.
Sutter is played by Miles Teller, and it’s a performance that launches from the starting gate on a burst of charm. With an easy laugh and a quick answer for everything, Sutter is the ultimate smooth operator, able to subtly disarm anyone who might mess with his devil-may-care vibe, be it a romantic rival or a demanding teacher. When Sutter walks into a room, it becomes a party.
Sutter’s friends laugh, but the laughter sounds much hollower than it did junior year.
It’s fitting, then, that he’s also an alcoholic. Sutter is the guy kids go to when they need some beer, and at first the fact that he carries a flask around seems like nothing more than a form of posing – a way for him to stand apart from the casual partiers. But then we see him spike the Slurpee cup he’s always holding, even while working at a suit-and-tie store, and we realize he’s rarely sober. This is both reflective and instructive to his worldview, for what is heavy drinking but the elevation of the now at the expense of both the immediate and the long-term future?
Considering where The Spectacular Now goes – away from Van Wilder territory toward something more reminiscent of Say Anything… or All the Real Girls – charm was only going to carry Teller so far. What a relief, then, that this young actor has the chops to dig beneath his character’s surface bravado and expose the fear and insecurity hiding there. A number of scenes reveal this, but my favorite might be those between Sutter and his boss at the clothing store (Bob Odenkirk), in which jokey asides about wanting to be part of his boss’ family reveal the gnawing hole in Sutter’s own family life.
The Spectacular Now also boasts Shailene Woodley as Amy, a quiet classmate Sutter begins casually dating after his girlfriend moves on to someone else. Amy is star-struck at Sutter’s attention, and at first I found this frustrating. Yet Woodley and the movie’s screenwriters – Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – are creating an intentional portrait of a wallflower who, like Sutter, loses sight of her own best interest. We want more of Amy’s story – and Woodley’s performance – but only because she registers so strongly in the few scenes she has.
If Amy is secondary to the movie, then, it isn’t due to careless neglect. Rather, it’s because The Spectacular Now can’t be considered another teen romance. No matter the budget, those are a dime a dozen. This is something far more truthful and extraordinary.