Movie review by Greg Carlson
Observant and sincere, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Tim Tharp’s “The Spectacular Now” is quieter and more naturalistic than the recent version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower, another novel-to-film coming of age story willing and eager to treat its teenage characters with sensitivity and respect. Both stories deal substantially with the encroachment of the unwelcome responsibilities of adulthood, and Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are perfect as young people negotiating the rapid approach of life after high school. A worthy addition to the canon of serious-minded teen movies, “The Spectacular Now” could mark breakthrough turning points for the talented young leads, both of whom showcase their finest screen performances to date.
The plot is as easygoing as protagonist Sutter Keely (Teller), a quick-witted high school senior interested in the Spicoli-esque pursuit of a good time, all the time. Sutter is the kind of kid who outwardly makes it all look so easy, even if his borderline math grades pose a minor threat to graduation. Behind the smiling façade, however, are the lasting scars of paternal abandonment, now taking up residence in the form of Sutter’s dependence on the contents of his ever-present hip flask. Sutter’s mom Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works hard to provide for her son, clearly hoping he won’t follow in his father’s unsteady footsteps. Recently dumped, Sutter surprises his friends and himself by pursuing a rebound romance with the quiet, overlooked Aimee Finecky (Woodley).
As a filmmaker, Ponsoldt takes obvious pleasure in collaborating with the performers, and some of the most rewarding exchanges of “The Spectacular Now” emerge from the long takes and unhurried intimacies that give Teller and Woodley the space to listen, react, and respond to each other. The opposites-attract combination of smart but slightly sheltered girl and sociable, underachieving wiseacre boy will remind some of Cameron Crowe’s beloved “Say Anything…” but “The Spectacular Now” appears to aim for a slightly different kind of epiphany for its central pair. John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler never doubts his suitability as a partner for Ione Skye’s Diane Court the way that Sutter second-guesses being with Aimee.
As admirably as “The Spectacular Now” holds focus on Teller and Woodley, Ponsoldt sometimes fails to fully capitalize on the story’s grown-ups. The film certainly would have benefited from one or two more short conversations featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh. The same goes for the brilliant Andre Royo as Sutter’s patient geometry teacher Mr. Aster. Bob Odenkirk plays a terrific turning point scene as Sutter’s tailor shop boss and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who starred as an alcoholic elementary school teacher in Ponsoldt’s previous feature “Smashed,” appears as Sutter’s slightly older, married sister.
For many viewers, the film’s highlight will be Sutter’s ill-advised journey to visit his absentee father, an irresponsible lush whose glassy eyes instantly relate the grim knowledge that he spends most of his time inebriated. As Tommy Keely, Kyle Chandler steals the brief segment in which he is featured. The father-son interaction is clearly engineered as a bleak wake-up call to Sutter and a reminder to the audience that history can come uncomfortably close to repetition. Sutter’s anger and resentment reside next to a pained and fragile vulnerability that positions “The Spectacular Now” as one of the year’s most welcome entries.