The Spectacular Now is one of those movies “they” don’t make much anymore. It’s a small-to-medium-sized film, somewhat like a Woody Allen movie in scope. No aliens, no superheroes, no thrilling chases–in fact, New York and Washington are left completely intact. This is just about people–in this case, high school seniors. It’s like an Allen film in its focus on character, its limited range, and its excellent acting. It’s not like an Allen film in that it’s not cynical, it doesn’t take place in a major city, and it doesn’t wrestle with the moral balance of the universe.
It’s a growing-up film and as such is nearly pitch-perfect. Miles Teller as Sutter and Shailene Woodley as Aimee are as good as it gets in terms of embodying real teenagers. He’s confident/struggling, and leads with laughs, pithy sayings, and a great deal of verbal distraction. She’s more than convinced of her ordinariness than she should be, but is kind, other-centered, and has what we parents call “a good head on her shoulders.” It’s the dance of their personalities at this important juncture in their lives that is at the heart of the film.
Woodley, who should have been Oscar-nominated for being the best thing in The Descendants, absolutely nails her part here. Its strength is not so much in the big dramatic moments as in the thousand-and-one little ways in which she shows us how a real teen thinks and acts. She could have easily executed this as a series of lines, facial expressions and moments. Instead, she embodies her character as completely as any other actress this year, and acts consistently from that place of identification.
Teller has as great a challenge, but with a very different character. It’s his film, and he owns it. Sutter is the one going through the bigger journey here (Aimee develops, but more unfolds and blossoms than changes), and Teller embraces both the brash and the broken with equal ease. This is his star-making turn.
The script is tight and focused, and yet gives us breathing room to ponder at times, about moments, about possibilities, about possibilities. It also refreshingly surprises. [Spoiler alert] Just when we’re sure there is going to be a car accident, we don’t get one. [Semi spoiler alert] Just when we get caught up in an intense discussion, something unexpected happens that literally took my breath (rather loudly) away. (I was grateful I was the only person in the theater at the time.) The only aspect that seemed a little out of place was the role of drinking, which can function as a family bondage issue in the film, but which ultimately weighs the action down.
Supporting performances are nearly as strong as the two central ones. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who seems to age at about half the rate of us mere mortals, plays Sutter’s mom with intensity, pain, and an attempt to pull her child in the opposite direction of her disappointing ex because she sees so much of his dad in him. Bob Odenkirk is as real in his role as Sutter’s boss as Teller and Woodley are in their more expanded roles. The only misstep is Kyle Chandler as Sutter’s father. His acting is fine, but the slight messed-up garb and scruffiness can’t hide the leading-man looks or dull the likability of the actor’s persona. It helps us not to hate him, but that’s all.
The cinematography goes in a few unusual directions. In most romantic comedies or relationship films, directors or cinematographers use a shallow focus to keep our attention on the two main characters, separating them from their physical environments. But instead of shooting our leads singly or together with the requisite soft lighting, we see every scar, facial bump and line of the teenage face. Our focus is on these two, to be sure, but any romanticism is kept to a minimum. There is also a regular use of long takes with reverse tracking shots, allowing us to see the leads’ growing connection while being reminded that no one knows where they’re going, including us as viewers. In today’s chop-chop editing world, this is a refreshing change and also provides us with lessons in what solid uninterrupted acting looks like–a sight not generally enjoyed since the 1950s.
This isn’t for kids. It’s rated R for a reason, with more f-bombs than one can count, and an extended sex scene that shows nothing but indicates nearly everything. But as a story of facing the hurdles of adulthood, it shows the complexity of growing up today with respect for its leads and the layers of their many challenges. It’s a rather small plot and it leaves the viewer with a mixture of anticipation and unsettledness. But the world the filmmaker creates resonates with veracity, and the two central performances are a joy to behold and offer us a promise of many more years of acting pleasure.