The scars and blemishes on the faces of the high-school lovers in “The Spectacular Now” are beautifully emblematic of director James Ponsoldt’s bid to bring the American teen movie back to some semblance of reality, a bid that pays off spectacularly indeed. Skillfully adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel, evocatively lensed in the working-class neighborhoods of Athens, Ga., and tenderly acted by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, this bittersweet ode to the moment of childhood’s end builds quietly to a pitch-perfect finale. Warts-and-all authenticity can be a tough sell, but Ponsoldt’s bracing youth pic seems bound to graduate with honors.
Working with a sensitive script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer”), Ponsoldt follows his “Off the Black” and “Smashed” with another insightful study of a flawed protagonist’s hard-fought battle against forces, including alcohol, that keep him or her from growing to fruition. Dumped by his gorgeous girlfriend (Brie Larson) in the early going, whiskey-swilling senior Sutter Keely (Teller) swiftly rebounds by making a charismatic play for book-smart Aimee Finecky (Woodley), who finds him passed out at dawn on a neighbor’s front yard and is astounded when the school’s hungover party monster returns her gaze.
Aimee, having never had a boyfriend, naturally falls hard for the ultra-confident but scholastically challenged Sutter as she tutors him in geometry and he teaches her how to drink. Although Sutter can’t stop mildly flirting with his ex, he makes the moves on Aimee anyway, alarming friends of both. A startlingly intimate sex scene, set in Aimee’s tiny bedroom and hauntingly captured in long take, marks the point at which the possibility of heartbreak begins to loom large.
Whatever formulaic elements appear in the opposites-attract scenario are mitigated by the film’s philosophical underpinnings. While pragmatic Aimee prepares to attend college in Philadelphia, Sutter remains arrogantly committed to his manner of living in the moment, believing that a car, a flask and an hourly wage job are all he’s ever going to need. Sutter’s hardened mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) worries that her son is following in the footsteps of his estranged father and contrives to prevent a reunion of the two.
It’s during the inevitable meeting with Dad (Kyle Chandler), facilitated by Sutter’s well-off sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and held over pitchers of beer, that the film’s principal themes — of the difficulty of breaking the familial mold, the fine line between temporary behavior and habit, and the fleeting nature of youth — begin to take root. Ponsoldt, with the help of Jess Hall’s attentive cinematography, does an excellent job of letting the drama play out on the imperfect faces of his two young leads, both of whom embody a delicate combination of fearlessness and vulnerability.
Woodley thoroughly fulfills the promise of her smaller role as the teenage daughter in “The Descendants,” locating the precise point at which Aimee’s infatuation with Sutter turns to self-protection. Equally impressive is Teller, who makes his character’s adolescent bravado appear intoxicating and then more than a little scary. The film’s supporting players are uniformly superb, particularly a haggard Chandler, who offers a worrisome glimpse of what Sutter could easily become, and Andre Royo as a schoolteacher whose honest reluctance to sell Sutter on the advantages of adulthood silently speaks volumes.
Linda Sena’s production design makes vibrant use of Athens locations while maintaining the small-town setting as Anywhere, U.S.A. Editing by Darrin Navarro respects the pic’s alternately peppy and languorous mood, occasionally using slo-mo to represent Sutter’s desire to stretch now to eternity. Other tech elements are aces, each one furthering the film’s refreshing commitment to naturalism.