If we were to study the life of an American teenager through film, the arc of our youth predictably boils down to a handful of beats, most of which are inflated truths. Typically, the last year in high school finds any given teen aimlessly drifting into the mist of adulthood, with the ghost of a fractured romantic relationship lingering in the back of their mind. Naturally, the teen finds themselves strangely attracted to the one person they shouldn’t be attracted to: the social pariah. The school miscreant is merely a flower that’s blooming late, possessing a powerful beauty that eventually leads to jealous, dismissive glares. House parties, college choices and the destruction of newfound love almost always give way to life lessons delivered either at prom or on graduation day. The problem with most films tracking a teen’s transition into “real life”, is they revel far too much in the big moments and find themselves burdened by cliché. Admittedly, these big moments are legitimate experiences most of us face, but very few films place stock in the moments buried within teenage benchmarks. James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of The Spectacular Now exists beyond the margins cinema has established for teenage life.
A closer examination of the teenage life begins with Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) lamenting about the girl who got away in his college application essay. In describing his life, Sutter masks his budding alcoholism as a form of living in the “now”, a convenient excuse for his lack of foresight and inability to invest in himself. Seen as one of the school’s most charismatic individuals, championed often as the life of the party, Sutter is the only one who doesn’t understand that at some point the party has to end. Sutter’s life comes into focus when he wakes up one morning, after a night of drunken debauchery reigns supreme, on a random lawn with Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) looming over him. Sutter doesn’t recognize Aimee despite her being in his grade, yet his quick wit serves him well enough to salvage what should’ve been a disastrous conversation. The two quickly take an interest in one another, slowly building an infectious rapport over the course of a few weeks. Sutter’s intentions seem murky at first, as he continuously attempts to resurrect his previous relationship, but Aimee’s genuine interest in him helps him drop the dead weight he carries. Finally, a relationship that teetered between platonic and romantic gains clarity when the two share precious physical moments. Their fusion gains strength when they’re forced to reexamine the past and put stock in the future, acts that definitely don’t come easy.
Now, there are moments within The Spectacular Now that veer in the direction of cliché but, miraculously, they’re avoided. The screenplay, written by the fantastic duo (Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter) who wrote the game changing (500) Days of Summer, concerns itself with the smaller, more intimate snapshots of teenage life. Major events like prom and graduation are certainly present in the film, but they’re treated with less significance than a first time sexual experience or a quiet , loving discussion taking place on the outskirts of a dance floor. Perhaps the biggest praise I can give to the film is it ability to treat Sutter and Aimee, as well as the rest of the characters, like human beings and not disposable teen archetypes. Their lives aren’t spared any level of awkwardness, confusion or fallacies. If anything they’re gently dissected in front of us, with each incision reminding us what it means to grow up. The raucous parties never end without recourse, physical perfection doesn’t run rampant, and love is never reacquired with a cheesy monologue. Everything is earned and unassuming.
One of the film’s finer moments, which also speaks volumes to director James Ponsoldt’s vision, is the first sexual moment Sutter and Aimee share with one another. Built around nervous banter and giggles, the scene perfectly encapsulates the film’s overarching sincerity. It’s also a scene where Teller and Woodley’s chemistry sears through the screen, etching a place in our hearts. Neither actor is particularly glamorous, but both exude a level of confidence that provides their faces with an inescapable shimmer. And each moment they share together feels significant, forcing us to fall in love with their characters, and the movie as a whole, more and more. Where most films about teenage life recycle the same plot points and make light of our waning time in high school, The Spectacular Now treats our last moments of discovery and innocence with great respect and intimacy. And in doing so, it breaks the mold.