By the end of The Spectacular Now, we’re not sure what’s to become of the relationship between its two main characters, Sutter Keely and Aimee Finecky. But it’s to the filmmakers’ credit, including the gifted actors, that our hopes go with these big-hearted teenagers.
That the two high-school seniors could have gotten together romantically speaks to the strange powers of chance, serendipity and openness. The popular Sutter isn't quite a hard partier — he functions more at a constant simmer, casually taking occasional swigs from a flask or pouring its contents into an oversized soda cup from the local convenience store. All the while, he's the life of wherever he happens to be — not because any too-outrageous antics, but because he exudes enthusiasm for seizing the moment.
That focus on the moment becomes a theme running through director James Ponsoldt's film, which is based on the 2010 novel by Tim Tharp. It's been adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, the scribes behind (500) Days of Summer. As Sutter, Miles Teller (21 and Up, Rabbit Hole) is magnetic and expressive, simultaneously conveying warmth and vulnerability. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) is every bit as mesmerizing in the role of Aimee, endearing herself to viewers much as she does to a boy who alternates between emotional availability and restraint in order to satisfy his need to connect while safeguarding against heartbreak.
Sutter knows he's found something special in Aimee; he is genuinely attracted to her and wants to share in her interests. But his recent breakup with Cassidy (Brie Larson) casts a shadow over the budding relationship. The idea that Sutter could ruin the good thing he has with Aimee for foolish pining is the film's chief source of tension, one that's heightened in contrast with Sutter's carefree attitude and Ponsoldt's deliberate storytelling.
Like Sutter, those around him wear façades that mask truths about themselves. This is true of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Smashed), who plays Sutter's older sister and is the picture of cloistered patrician privilege. Ponsoldt and Winstead elicit a longing that is muted by a manicured, just-so lifestyle. Sutter's estranged father (Kyle Chandler, who is spot-on in this small but key role) is an unseen enigma for much of the film. When Sutter and Aimee meet with him, the revealing of his true nature is the catalyst for a series of emotionally powerful events.
The Spectacular Now is attuned to its characters’ emotional vulnerabilities and expressions, and makes them its main focus. Sutter's unpredictability, and our desire for him to the do the right thing, gives the movie its sway. We wonder if and when his emotions will be laid bare, and the suspense is as knot-forming as that in a well-done action film. The Spectacular Now makes worthwhile commentary on what its means to live in the now. It respects our capacity to accept ambiguity. It makes us uncomfortable. But it also gets us to care by being honest. This is a rare, special film.