Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a motor-mouthed 18-year-old b.s. artist with a serious drinking problem. A high school senior, he’s the life of the party, the kind of kid who thinks he’s everyone’s best friend, and is catnip to the ladies.
At least that’s the vibe he gives off. But inwardly Sutter is a mess, a man-child from a broken home, with little ambition except his next drink and sexual experience. He’s stuck in neutral, according to the clothing store owner (Bob Odenkirk) Sutter works for. But in reality, Sutter seems to be shifting into reverse.
Then Sutter meets Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a “nice” girl who helps mom on her paper route, gets good grades and has never had a boyfriend. She’s a bit of a nerd and outcast, but that’s by choice. Aimee marches to the beat of her own drummer. Sutter figures he can take advantage of this sweet young thing, get into her pants, and then dump her. But the more he gets to know her, the more he realizes that she’s the best thing that has ever happened to him. And that maybe he’s the worst thing that has ever happened to her.
On the surface, director James Ponsoldt’s film sounds like your typical mismatched-couple-meet-and-have-good/bad-relationship story. But “The Spectacular Now” overcomes any potential clichés because it is refreshingly real in every single moment, and features two young stars giving – yes, I’ll say it – spectacularly good performances (the film deservedly won an acting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival).
One of the strengths of the film is its low-key method of storytelling, typified by Ponsoldt’s penchant for long takes involving lots of dialogue. This gives the two leads plenty of breathing room to burrow into their characters and explore their nuances. And it allows us not only to see their reality, but to recognize them as kids we once might have been – or known.
This sense of recognition extends to some of the extremely well cast secondary roles, including Andre Royo (“Bubbles” in The Wire) as a teacher frustrated by Sutter’s lackadaisical attitude and Kyle Chandler as Sutter’s layabout dad, enjoying a worthless Margaritaville lifestyle.
Self-knowledge is a wonderful thing, and at the end of “The Spectacular Now,” both Sutter and Aimee seem to understand what they are and what they are meant to be. That might sound like the kind of cliché ending you’ve seen in a thousand movies, but the humanity of Ponsoldt’s film, and the charm of its leads, makes “The Spectacular Now” something truly special.