“I live in the now.” This comment, proclaimed by the main character’s father at an isolated bar in the woods, epitomizes how everyone in this gripping and funny heartfelt story is trying to make the most of what they have at the moment. The up-and-coming Miles Teller plays the film’s protagonist, Sutter, a recent high school graduate who is struggling to figure out who he is and what he wants. The Spectacular Now brings a fresh insight into the coming-of-age story, stripping away the innocent idealism that characterized 1980s teen dramas like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Say Anything, with their cheery conclusions. Rather, director James Ponsoldt’s vision of adolescent drama confronts conflicts about education, the realities of alcoholism, and the growing normalcy of broken relationships. The serious tone of this film gives a more introspective account of what these people consider worth living for. The desperate attempt to accept and appreciate what is happening right now drives the emotions of everyone whom Sutter encounters.
Miles Teller expertly portrays Sutter, a charming but haunted young adult who remains clueless about what he wants to do once he graduates from high school. He wants to reconnect with his estranged father. His girlfriend breaks up with him due to his lack of responsibility. The distance within this family only deepens Sutter’s problem with drinking, since the past and the future are only a blur to him. Kyle Chandler, also known as Coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights, portrays Sutter’s disaffected, self-absorbed father who really does not love anyone. His mother also seems nonchalant about her son’s lifestyle. She remains bitter about her husband’s betrayal and works nearly all the time at a hospital. On top of all of that, Sutter’s older sister is only seen in the movie for a few scenes. The film thus emphasizes Sutter’s growing alienation from his family, reinforcing his desperate, if uncertain, attempts to find meaningful relationships with his peers.
Sutter’s dysfunctional family provides a focal point for many of his problems, whether it’s poor grades, bitter ex-girlfriends or the partying that he hides behind. The film conveys these painful situations without being too sentimental or ridiculous. Sutter’s eventual saving grace comes from Aimee, played naturally by Shailene Woodley. Woodley changes character completely from the snarky, rebellious daughter in Alexander Payne’s 2011 Oscar-winning film The Descendants to the earthy, well-spoken Aimee. After Sutter wakes up on her front lawn from a night of heavy partying, their relationship begins when Aimee treats him with understanding and convinces him to help her deliver newspapers. Their interactions provide the film’s emotional core, offering scenes that expertly combine the meaningful and humorous moments of falling in love.
What makes these characters memorable is the way the film allows them to grow upon the viewer. It is the little things that count in The Spectacular Now, such as the subtlety within profound reactions during dialogue. Insight into conversations allows Sutter and Aimee to stand out more not only as a couple but as individuals. Sutter has a drinking problem, but the movie never becomes preachy about alcoholism. Rather, the film allows the problem to exist in its complexity, never dodging its depth and refusing any facile conclusions. The Spectacular Now offers a genuine, straightforward tone that encourages interest and sympathy for its characters. Ponsoldt knows when a scene should be funny and when it should be more serious. This is the right framework for characterizing these interesting young adults who are about to enter the next phase in life.