The Spectacular Now Review
by Daniel Rester
Sutter Keely isn’t a bad guy. He brings joy to many of his friends and family members, and he is good at his job as a suit salesman. He just makes many mistakes, drinks too much, and lives too much in the smaller moments of “the now.” Keely is a flawed teenager, one with a big heart but a blood flow of occasional selfishness. The character of Keely, wonderfully played by young actor Miles Teller, is just one of the reasons why James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now stands out as a brutally honest and beautiful film.
Keely is an eighteen-year-old man finishing up his final months of high school and not hitting the essays too much for college applications. He loves being the life of the party and making people happy, but he doesn’t care much for the future. After realizing that Keely may not want to go further with his life, but rather just further into the bottle, Keely’s girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), decides to break it off with him.
The breakup doesn’t shatter Keely — though he does have some pain — because he feels that things will work out with Cassidy and that his life will continue to be joyful. But the dose of reality soon kicks in. His fallback is to start spending more time with Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a girl who he met after waking up hung-over on her yard.
Keely and Finecky don’t seem right for each other. He dismisses school tasks for pleasure and has had sexual experiences; Finecky is part of a French club, reads manga, and is a (supposed) virgin. Yet the two click and unexpectedly fall for each other despite their many differences.
Now is based on Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name, and the script was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who also teamed up to write 2009’s (500) Days of Summer). The writing here provides for authentic situations, characters, and dialogue, but it also supplies some surprises and never missteps and falls into an area full of clichés or usual coming-of-age trappings. Some of the supporting characters could have used a bit more development on the page and it seems like the story should have been longer, but the story world and everyone in it does feel real. And Neustadter and Weber deliver the right amount of cleverness, heart, and sting in their approach.
Ponsoldt’s sensitive direction perfectly complements the writing as well. The helmer brings the writing to life and provides some nice images (though some shots are too dim at times), and he also never tries to get showy and make things more melodramatic through heightened actions, overdramatic music, quick-cut editing, etc. He instead holds shots and lets the moments play out believably — from the awkward conversations in a growing relationship to the healthy communication in some sexual experiences. This favoring of skillful and delicate storytelling over style, easy ways out, and theatrics is truly refreshing to see in a modern coming-of-age drama.
As mentioned, Teller is great in the lead. The actor looks somewhat old for the part, but he embodies the character of Keely well – delivering on the fronts of charm, sadness, etc. Even better, slightly, is Woodley. The actress, who previously shined in the 2011 film The Descendents, is quite amazing here. She captures the essence of being a teenage introvert who also happens to have true confidence in herself and interesting qualities. Woodley never tries to play the character as if Finecky needs Keely in order to fit in or have fun, but rather presents her as a delightful and caring person who enjoys coming out of her shell with this newfound love. And Teller and Woodley’s chemistry is spot-on, truly rich in its display.
Though some of the supporting characters may be a bit weak development-wise, the actors that play them are very strong. This includes everyone from Bob Odenkirk (as Keely’s boss) to Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as his sister) to Jennifer Jason Leigh (as his mom). But the standout supporting players are Larson and Kyle Chandler. Larson makes Cassidy an appealing person and gives her a good touch of emotionality instead of turning her into the dislikable ex-girlfriend type. And Chandler impresses as Keely’s dad, a man who left his family and shares some characteristics with Keely. When the two men come together on the screen, Chandler adds just the right amount of darkness and pathos to the scenes.
Now does that rare thing that only some of the great coming-of-age dramas can do: it paralyzes people by its finish and makes them think of the good choices, the mistakes, and the relationships of their teenage years. It’s a film that made me ponder things, having me smile at the fun times I had with some buddies and ex-girlfriends, but also feel a sadness in my heart for the pain that I brought to a few of the relationships with them. It’s a funny, poignant, and realistic film, and one that I will not soon — or ever — forget.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-)