The Spectacular Now

I’d like you to meet Aimee Finicky. She’s the girl you didn’t notice in high school. She doesn’t wear makeup, but she also doesn’t wear glasses like you maybe expected. She’s nice, smart, responsible, has never had a boyfriend and enjoys reading manga comics. Aimee is kind of adorable in her own way, but then she’s also fairly soft-spoken, timid, without any quirks or real passionate interests. She’s like the anti manic pixie dream girl, which is its own special blessing.

So who is Aimee? What’s her thing? “I’d like to think there’s more to a person than just one thing,” she says, which is a more mature, adult thought than any high school kid will give her credit for.

James Ponsdolt’s third film “The Spectacular Now” is filled with such universal wisdom. It channels John Hughes era dramas but embeds its coming of age tale with challenging, thoughtful and moving subtext that makes it anything but a “teen movie.”  It’s a light, good-hearted, beautiful and romantic film that feels spectacular both now and forever.

Part of the brilliance of Ponsoldt’s screenplay is that, despite my being enamored with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), she’s not the film’s upfront star. Hollywood movies love to identify with the loser and have them reach up. “The Spectacular Now” digs into the rough patches with its anchor on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the popular, fairly likeable douchebag.

Always the charmer, he sets up his best friend with some “potentials” and is then accused of cheating on his current girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), with whom he is an item and the life of every party. Depressed at their separation, he drunkenly crashes his car and passes out on Aimee’s driveway. When she wakes him, he agrees to help her with some chores and have lunch with her at school. It slowly builds into a touching relationship that will span their senior year, taking them through the highs and lows of sex, prom, drinking, heartbreak, college applications and parent issues.

But that’s just the plot. “The Spectacular Now” feels lived in. It has a rich subtext that colors these characters’ lives and makes them whole. Sutter seems to channel John Cusack in “Say Anything” with his confident swagger and relatable sense of humor, despite not being the jock or the definition of cool. At one point he’s challenged by Cassidy’s new football QB boyfriend, who seems dull and nervous in comparison, but then these high school dynamics are never as certain as they seem in the movies.

There’s a lovely scene where Sutter and Aimee are walking through the woods and they share their first kiss. The camera follows them backwards in a long unbroken take, and Woodley and Teller work their magic. She’s drawn to his charisma, and he’s drawn to the fact that he can probably help.

The nuance however is that Sutter is a real corrupting factor in Aimee’s life. He gets her a personalized flask for their anniversary, and he instills in her a rebellious spirit against her struggling mom. He provides Aimee with the most fulfilling moment in her life, but as Cassidy mentions to Sutter, they need more than a moment; they need a future.

The line that defines his life at this moment is “going in neutral, but acting in overdrive.” High school may be the peak in many a person’s life, as some see it as the most enriching, liberating time they’ve ever known. But have any started to really see the person they’ll become? Have any learned even a shred of what they’ll learn about life in college?

Maybe that’s why you see more teen movies than college movies. Of course people come of age during their college years, but high school has always been more volatile.

Ponsoldt taps into that spirit with adult themes of fathers, sons, romance, love and booze. His hands-off style is very friendly to his actors, and as characters they are given room to grow and to discover. Ponsoldt nurtures “The Spectacular Now” until it feels well-rounded, real, intelligent and universal.

4 stars

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