The Spectacular Now is the third movie this year (after Mud and The Kings of Summer) to find unexpected beauty in one of the hoariest of all movie genres: the coming-of-age tale. This adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ( (500) Days of Summer) and directed with delicate restraint by James Ponsoldt ( Smashed), sneaks up on you while you’re not looking. It makes you laugh, then it breaks your heart. At first, the story seems to be cookie-cutter template: The fun-loving Sutter (Miles Teller), a popular high school senior and famed party animal, gets dumped by his girlfriend (Brie Larson) and befriends the quiet, innocent Aimee ( The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley), a girl who never wears makeup, gets straight A’s and is so impossibly good that she even wakes up at dawn to do her mother’s newspaper delivery route.
In practically any other movie, this improbable couple would learn life lessons from each other. She would teach him humility and candor; he would bring her out of her shell and show her how everyone needs to cut loose once in a while. But hardly anything in The Spectacular Now plays out the way you expect. The more time we spend with Sutter, who is curious about Aimee but still pining for his hot ex, the more we realize the kid has a serious drinking problem (as he did in Smashed, Ponsoldt knows how to depict alcoholism without violins or self-pity). And the better we get to know Aimee, the more we discover that this smart, confident girl is completely self-aware. She’s never had a boyfriend, she reads manga and she never drinks — not out of principle, but simply because she’s not interested.
After Sutter asks Aimee to tutor him in geometry, their connection starts to grow, but oh-so-slowly: This is not the kind of movie in which opposites instantly attract. Sutter asks her to go to a party with him, but only because he knows his ex will be there and he doesn’t want to show up alone. She has his first drink with him and discovers she likes it. Miles has a job at a clothing store, a car and no intention of going to college after graduation. He never thinks about his future, because it’s fuzzy and scary. “You gotta live in the moment,” he says as a way of rationalizing his way of life. “I don’t see what’s so great about being an adult.”
Neither of them has a father. Aimee’s died when she was younger; Sutter’s left home, destination unknown, and neither his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) nor his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is willing to give him his dad’s phone number. Their anger and resentment only make Sutter more curious about what happened. But some questions are best left unanswered.
The Spectacular Now has all the usual elements of the high school movie — prom, homework, keg parties — but they’re all relegated to the background, used only to render the world its protagonists inhabit. Ponsoldt shoots certain sequences in long, uninterrupted takes, achieving an uncommon level of intimacy with Sutter and Aimee during some of their most personal moments (the scene in which she loses her virginity is exceptionally tender and knowing).
The performances by Teller and Woodley are so strong that when the tone starts to darken and the characters make some radical discoveries, all the usual trappings of adolescent angst melt away: You feel like you’re watching two real, complicated people. The Spectacular Now loses its nerve only at the end, changing the novel’s downbeat conclusion for something happier. But by then, you’ve come to love these characters so much that only the most heartless grinch would complain.