The Spectacular Now

Directed By: James Ponsoldt

Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Kyle Chandler

The summer of coming-of-age movies is coming to a close.  Before we say adios, I'd just like to say that it's been a fun ride.  With films like Mud, The Kings of Summer, and The Way, Way Back, we simply haven't gone wrong.  The closer for this summer is James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now, a daring comedy-drama that puts a new melancholic spin on the transition into adulthood.  Like his feature films Off the Black and Smashed, Ponsoldt once again tackles alcoholism and the havoc this addiction can wreak upon a person and his loved ones in this one.  Impressively, he continues to look at alcoholism from a different angle with each new film.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a kid who's all about having fun.  This guy knows how to make friends and party hard, but he's not about building a future for himself.  He's also very fond of whiskey and beer.  Many in his life hope his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) will yank him out of neutral and get him going.  When Cassidy breaks up with him though, Sutter goes on a downward spiral fueled completely by liquor.  Devastated by the break-up, this kid has one wild night.  He wakes up in the morning on someone's lawn with unknown classmate Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) staring down on him.  Sutter is unaware of how he got there or what he did the night prior.  Since Aimee is driving around covering her mom's morning paper route and he has no clue where his car is, Sutter accompanies Aimee in the hopes of finding his ride.  Along the way, an interesting new friendship begins.

Sutter and Aimee couldn't be more different.  Sutter is clearly the life of every party and a budding alcoholic, while Aimee is the nice, nerdy girl who reads sci-fi comics like Gleaming Planet.  As he gets to know her, Sutter begins to see what a beautiful young woman Aimee is.  While out at a party one afternoon, an inebriated Sutter learns that Aimee has never had a boyfriend and sees an opportunity to give the girl her first real experience in relationships.  He asks her out, and their friendship becomes something more.  As the new couple wraps up senior year, Aimee sets her sights on a college in Philadelphia and begins planning for their future together.  Meanwhile, Sutter challenges his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to put him in touch with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) and struggles to write a personal statement for his college applications.

Another strong film from James Ponsoldt about addiction, The Spectacular Now is all about a young alcoholic confronting adulthood and realizing that he's spent the better part of his short time in the world making nothing of himself.  There's a big difference between Ponsoldt's current film and his previous feature Smashed, another deft exploration of alcoholism.  In Smashed, our main character Kate Hannah recognizes that she is an alcoholic and struggles to overcome her addiction in order to better herself.  In The Spectacular Now, Sutter embraces his self-destructive path and never explicitly acknowledges that he's an addict.  He's all about continuing down this path by living in the moment, in the here and now.  This is arguably the darkest angle of the addiction affliction Ponsoldt has given us, and I completely respect it.

As Sutter Keely, Miles Teller delivers the best performance of his career so far.  Typically known for so-so party movies like Project X and 21 & Over, the young actor takes us on an extremely dark journey and gives us a harsh lesson in the anatomy of a loser.  He uses the party animal charisma he's brought to life on the big screen in films past and turns it into a potent character flaw that outwardly accentuates everything that's wrong with Sutter.  He's a drunk loser doing nothing with his life and going nowhere despite the fact that he is an insightful, intelligent young man who understands people.  He wouldn't be able to make so many friends otherwise.

For her part as Teller's co-star Aimee Finecky, Shailene Woodley gives another strong performance.  Following up her collaboration with George Clooney in 2011's The Descendants, Woodley gets to show a different side here.  As Clooney's potty mouth teen daughter Alexandra, Woodley showcased a spunky, edgy persona.  This time around, she's the exact opposite.  She gives a soft, subtle performance characterized best by raw, unfiltered emotion.  This is only enhanced by the fact that she wears no make-up throughout the vast majority of the film to play into her character's sheltered nice girl image.  That's a refreshingly bold move for an actress of any age.  All in all, Woodley gives a great performance in this coming-of-age drama.

What I find most interesting about The Spectacular Now is that Ponsoldt gives Sutter a peek at his future if he continues along his self-destructive downward spiral living only in the here and now.  It's his parents.  Sutter is just like his father Mr. Keely.  In fact, Kyle Chandler gives us a sad look at the middle-aged loser Sutter will become if he continues down his current path.  With no one who loves him and having no one to love, Mr. Keely has nothing of value in this world.  If Mr. Keely is what Sutter would be going down this path, then Jennifer Jason Leigh's Ms. Keely would be Cassidy or some other girl that would fall into Sutter's fun trap and enable him to become a loser of epic proportions.  All that lies ahead for this hypothetical woman is a bitter life as a single mom.  Moreover, this is obvious but profoundly unsettling symbolism.

The Spectacular Now gets a sober rating.  James Ponsoldt's latest feature is a powerful cautionary tale about the downside of living the fun, glamorous party life in the here and now and not building a future.  It's another great depiction of addiction.  It's honestly a story that's not told enough to counteract the counterproductive message society sends our youth every day.