James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now” is a good little film that exists mainly to showcase two immense young acting talents: Shailene Woodley (who came to everyone’s attention when she played George Clooney’s daughter in “The Descendants”) and Miles Teller (“Rabbit Hole,” “Project X”). And they are very good indeed. But the rest of film is admittedly slight and doesn’t leave you with much to remember.
Ponsoldt’s film is about teenage love; Teller plays high school senior Sutter, one of those talkie, life of the party guys who gives off the illusion that he’s more popular than he really is. He’s great at socializing and helping his buddies get laid but in actuality he doesn’t seem to have that many friends. On top of that he doesn’t really have long-term goals and ambitions. In other words he makes jokes and can talk a mile a minute but doesn’t “do” much of anything and he’s insecure. After his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) dumps him, he goes on an all night partying and drinking binge, where he encounters Amiee (Woodley). Amiee’s the shy, good girl who likes to read and has long-term goals and dreams. So of course Sutter’s friends think it’s a little strange that he takes a liking to her. Oh, and it’s important to mention that the two kids have baggage pertaining to their parents; Sutter is distant with his mom and doesn’t even know where his dad is; Amiee’s dad committed suicide so she has to help out her mom with work and bills.
That’s pretty much it as far as story is concerned. Like I said, this movie’s sole purpose is to showcase these young actors and without them I think it would be much much worse. Woodley, while not angst-y and rebellious as she was in “The Descendants” turns in a perfectly sweet performance as Amiee; everything from her awkward laughs to the matter of fact way she recites her lines. You believe every word of her. Teller is just as natural, the sarcastic comments flowing smoothly out of his mouth, like a teenage version of Jonah Hill. But, as the movie goes on, and the serious stuff starts happening, he’s up to the task. Watching them together is like watching two real eighteen year olds in a relationship.
If only there was more for them to do. The script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the novel by Tim Tharp) simply doesn’t go deep enough in growing the characters and the relationship. We do learn a little more about Sutter and his problems (he eventually tracks down his deadbeat father) but Amiee is left largely unexplored. In addition the script offers little in the way of surprises; I remember waiting anxiously on the edge of my seat for a surprise or a twist or something big to happen, like in last year’s excellent teen dramedy “Perks of Being a Wallflower” but I was sadly disappointed. The whole movie is just one big…sigh.
Ponsoldt’s previous feature was “Smashed” with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an alcoholic teacher trying to beat the habit; “The Spectacular Now” also deals with alcoholism (Sutter likes to drink, not just at parties but also during a normal day from a flask and soon it rubs off on Amiee) but in a surprisingly subtle way. At first it just comes off as normal and casual teenage behavior, then it gradually becomes more and more noticeable and problematic. Now, obviously this is meant to give the story some serious weight and edge (otherwise the movie would be even more mundane) but Ponsoldt goes soft and so it comes off as gimmicky. Maybe he didn’t want to make it too intense since it’s about teenagers but Teller and Woodley are definitely able actors (Woodley did some pretty serious stuff in “Descendants” and Teller has been in two R-rated drinking/sex comedies).
In the end, “The Spectacular Now” earns major points because of the actors; without them people wouldn’t even be talking about the movie (it was warmly received at the 2013 Sundance film festival and has been getting mostly rave reviews since) but the movie on a whole feels too safe and trivial to make a lasting impact. As for Teller and Woodley though, they’ve got bright acting futures ahead of them.