The Spectacular Now spends much of its 90-minute running time drawing you back to its title. It strings together a potent series of moments, each rich with texture and a beautiful lack of luster. In fact, some parts of it get pretty ugly. This is a movie more interested in painting pictures of truth than spinning a tale. By the time its over, how you feel about it may depend on how much you embrace its idea of what makes something spectacular.
Here’s the set up: Sutter is the high school slacker who’s always been the life of the party. He’s got a hot girl, he parties hard and lives by no one’s rules but his own. But when a misunderstanding causes his girlfriend to bail, Sutter takes his pain by the horns and drowns himself in one last 80-proof bash of drunken hijinks. You can almost hear Hot Chelle Rae—he don’t know if he’ll make it, but watch how good he fakes it.
When he finally wakes up, he meets Aimee, the movie’s girl next door. In that moment, something awakens inside Sutter that only a movie meet-cute can really capture. What follows trudges through the ugly mires of family foibles, pain and vices—in other words, growing up.
Both Sutter and Aimee have problems at home, but while the film confronts Sutter’s issues head-on, the most we ever get about Aimee’s struggle is lip service. Still, the film makes some very refreshing turns away from the cookie-cutter teen movie. Sutter and Aimee look and act like normal kids. Their trajectory doesn’t follow the well-worn, candy-coated rom-com roadways. This film charts an awkward, funny, sometimes vulgar and disappointing course. It’s honest instead of pretty.
Everyone gives a stellar performance. Kyle Chandler (Sutter’s absent father) makes you forget all about Coach Taylor. Miles Teller (Sutter) owns the slacker suit and wears it as though it were made for him. Shailene Woodley (Aimee) shines much brighter than an airbrushed CW clone because she’s so real. Their emotion is real. They make you believe in them.
The story confronts very real challenges. Sutter swaggers and stumbles through every minute with a flask in his jacket. He is a walking sack of melancholy. His joie de vivre merely cloaks his pain. Sutter makes a genuine Everyman. His circumstances echo all across middle-class adolescence, and I want to see him break through. The film, however, either doesn’t seem to want him to, or it has a different idea of what that looks like in the end.
Here’s a small piece of my problem: Sutter begins and ends the film as a raging alcoholic. He loses his job because he’s a raging alcoholic. He spends most of the movie turning Aimee into a raging alcoholic. She almost dies because they’re raging alcoholics. Sutter loses everything, only to finally reach out for the one thing that brought him any real sense of joy. Yet at no point does anyone or anything suggest that maybe the first step he might take toward healing is throwing away the alcohol.
Maybe that sounds too … puritanical. The challenges that occupy Sutter’s moral universe are not simple, nor are they easily overcome. The truth is, kids grow up making stupid decisions. Adolescence is messy, complicated, emotional, raw, painful and sometimes tragic. The film ends with Sutter at the very beginning of his long crawl out of hell and toward light. But just when he’s tasted the light, it’s almost like some unseen scoundrel comes along and plugs the hole.
At a time that likely signals the end of the romantic comedy era, here’s a film that does something different. It retains every beat of the paradigm, but replaces the usual gloss with something more weather-beaten and ordinary. That by itself makes it spectacular. That, I can admire.
For all the comparisons others have drawn between this and the films of John Hughes, The Spectacular Now didn’t leave me with that small spark of something Hughes knew how to conjure. This is Sutter’s story. What happens to him matters, and while the film drops several hints that it does have a purpose, it lands somewhere on the idea that it’s the journey that’s supposed to matter. It brings some semblance of catharsis, but it felt very hollow to me. I want to like this picture, but Sutter’s journey just makes me hurt. And not in a good way.
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber