What It's About
The extraordinary Miles Teller ("Footloose") and Shailene Woodley ('The Descendants") aren't typical teens from central casting in "The Spectacular Now," a disarming high school romance that breaks the mold in terms of acting and screenplay. Yet, it features the same conflicts that many coming-of-age stories have -- only its normalcy sets it apart.
There isn't a smidgeon of phoniness -- sure, there is a prom, a graduation, confrontations and reconciliations, actions and consequences, but it feels like real life.
Teller is Sutter Keely, a life-of-the-party guy who is one of the cool kids. He's not much of a student, trying to charm his way out of thorny situations, tossing off quips with ease. After breaking up with a popular girl, he meets "good girl" Aimee, who was previously invisible at his school. He discovers she's smart and sweet, and she can help him with geometry. He likes hanging out with her -- despite his feelings for the one who got away.
Aimee has never had a boyfriend, and she falls hard, although she can't quite believe he's that into her. Their relationship develops in an easy, casual way. However, their home lives aren't exactly perfect, and they have baggage -- his absentee father, her widowed mom. He also self-medicates by having a buzz most of the time, as he spikes fountain sodas with his ever-present flask. She joins in the fun, uncharacteristic for her.
So where do they go from here? The future lies before them, and decisions must be made.
Both leads received a Special Jury Prize for Acting at the Sundance Film Festival -- "For two young actors who showed rare honesty, naturalism and transparency and whose performances brought out the best in each other." Deserving of those accolades, they are convincing as these two opposites who have deep affection for each other, but have other issues to work through. They draw us in, and we feel their range of emotions.
In supporting roles, the adults are affecting as well -- Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Revenge") as Sutter's hard-working single mom, Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights") as his screw-up dad, and Bob Odenkirk ("Breaking Bad") as his understanding boss. The grown-ups aren't buffoons -- how refreshing!
Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, the screenwriters of the sublime "(500) Days of Summer," bring the same interesting sensibilities to this script, which is adapted from Tim Tharp's novel. They write the way people really talk, and that is their strength. You never quite know where the story is headed, but you are a willing follower. You know these people -- you might recognize yourself or a brother, sister, son, daughter, pal -- someone you know.
The film is similar in some ways to "Say Anything," another quirky romance between a brainiac and goofball that endeared itself to fans through word of mouth. The Sutter character's resemblance to John Cusack's Lloyd can't be that coincidental while Aimee's unapologetic about her intelligence and goals, same as Ione Skye. This is not a bad thing.
What Doesn't Work
The editing isn't as sharp as it could have been to mark this as an instant classic. Nevertheless, it is one of the best teen romance films in recent memory, sure to be a crowd-pleaser, and definitely worth the investment. Focus on Sutter's family and little time on Aimee's might make this lopsided.
What's missing is a signature song, but thankfully, there is no cloying montage.
One also can't tell what geographic region the story takes place, unless you read the book. It's Athens, Ga.
3 stars out of 4
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Rated: R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality -- all involving teens