I like the way The Spectacular Now holds itself. It’s a coming-of-age movie that confidently tries to be more adult and sophisticated than the genre usually allows for. The two leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, glow with youthful charm and their shared chemistry is a big part of why the film works so well. On the surface it’s all very sugary and sweet, Ponsoldt bathes much of the film in a golden hue but there’s also a sense of impending doom. After all, adulthood is just around the corner.
I keep coming back to this sense of foreboding in the film. The central romance feels authentic and is one of those affairs destined to last only a short summer but one which will be incredibly formative for those involved. While Sutter and Aimee seem to be falling in love and the film indulges in all the fluttered heartbeats and awkward giggles, it’s also not afraid to anchor it all on someone who is, frankly, sort of an asshole. I understand why this is considered Teller’s breakout performance – he’s a fresh and captivating performer, never boring, always surprising – but it’s also because Sutter has got real demons. He’s constantly chugging booze, is pathetically infatuated with his ex (Brie Larson) and has questionable motives for pursuing Aimee. Woodley too heightens Aimee to something more than just the “sweet girl-next-door” type. She is one of those “heart of gold” characters. So hard to pull off and imbue with a heartbeat but Woodley manages it with a breathless ease.
The film breaks new ground in two sequences: when Aimee and Sutter first have sex and when Sutter decides to track down his deadbeat dad. The sex scene here is about as awkward, touching and genuine as any I’ve ever seen before. It’s little more than two kids figuring it out in the moment and enjoying their connection on a new level and it is performed and captured to near-perfection.
The second sequence, involving Sutter’s Dad (Kyle Chandler) at first seems like a bizarre digression but it becomes crucial. For the first time, Sutter comes face-to-face with the man he assumed he should look up to, and is instead faced with a waste of space. There’s no big confrontation, no “movie” moment where the bad guy gets his comeuppance. Instead, Teller keeps the realisation internal. It’s the moment when Sutter re-asseses his life and his priorities. The fall-out of the scene – a car crash – is even more powerful as a result. I assumed the film was heading to a tragic conclusion. After all, all those close-ups of Sutter drinking were surely going to pay off with blood. I thought I was ahead of the movie, that the film was going to end with Aimee killed in the crash because of Sutter’s reckless drinking and selfishness. Initially, the fact she survives with a fractured arm seemed off to me. But after a bit of mulling over I realised it was more true to life. This isn’t just Sutter’s movie. The lessons aren’t only his to learn. By the end of The Spectacular Now the characters have realised two things: Sutter is fucked up and Aimee can do better. To leave their future together ambiguous is also the right move.
It’s taken me a while to catch up with The Spectacular Now but I near enough enjoyed every minute. It’s still a movie movie and works as an escapist fairy tale but it can also be enjoyed as something much deeper. The complex characters, caring direction and careful script all work in harmony. It’s the closest I’ve seen to a Cameron Crowe movie not directed by Cameron Crowe in a long time. I know I’m not the first to make that comparison, but cliches are cliches for a reason. Somehow this film manages to embrace the good ones and avoid the bad.