Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)

The Spectacular Now is a very strange high school movie. It’s observant and quiet and doesn’t try to replicate the emotional overdrive of late adolescence. We watch the characters live their lives and stumble through their decisions. We don’t feel the rush of their sometimes-poor choices. It’s ultimately a sympathetic film, letting us see the unadorned picture of its central characters’ senior year.

At the heart of The Spectacular Now is Sutter (Miles Teller), the self-proclaimed life of every party. He’s the lovable goof every high school class has. He’s always witty, seems to like most everyone else in the class, and always makes things more exciting. He lives in the moment, which includes always being buzzed, sipping whisky from his fountain drinks. By every definition of the term, Sutter is an alcoholic, but because he’s only 18 years old, the world often chooses to look the other way and indulge his addiction.

One morning after a particularly blurry party experience, Sutter wakes up on the lawn of Aimee (Shailene Woodley). The two teens instantly bond and Sutter asks her to help him with his geometry homework. Romance blossoms. Aimee sees Sutter for something more than he is. Sutter gets Aimee into the habit of sneaking flasks into school and treating every moment like it’s a party.

Most high school movies have characters like Sutter, but they never view them in the same way as this film. First of all, they’re rarely the main character, and if they are, the film usually indulges their character flaws, scoffing off any notion of them having a serious problem. Abusing booze, sex, and drugs — all aspects of ordinary teen life according to Hollywood. But this attitude discounts the notion that a teenager can suffer from real problems, as if all issues they struggle with and all experiences they blunder through are merely life lessons to teach them about the real world. If this is true, then arguably the same could be said for every single person’s experience with hardship, no matter how old they are, but that's beside the point.

The Spectacular Now shows how even if making mistakes is an essential part of adolescence, bad decisions have consequences. Whenever Sutter drinks, the film is deliberate in showing his driving while intoxicated, putting himself and others in danger. A confrontation late in the film between Sutter and his estranged father (an against type Kyle Chandler) hits the point home about the dangers of ignoring consequences and letting your own worst traits dictate your actions. Children often reflect their parents. Sutter struggles with the fact that he reflects his father, and fears that his transformation into him is inevitable.

Aside from its comments on adolescent responsibility and addiction, The Spectacular Now is also more observant in its depiction of high school romance than most films of its type. The bond between Sutter and Aimee is sweet and realistic. Their affection for each other is genuine, but vague since they don’t know each other too well. When they make love, they’re gentle and a bit awkward. Importantly, James Ponsoldt’s filmmaking never sexualizes Aimee in the love scene, showing that it’s not meant for the titillation of the audience, but to make us understand these characters in their intimacy. A sex scene actually exploring the characters? Wow, how rare! Their time together lets them each discover something about themselves. Early romances do that, even if they’re not fated to last forever. They turn you into the person you’re going to be.

The teenage years are about trying things out, but they’re most fundamentally about determining who you are going to be in the future. Each decision in the moment, in the now, shapes who you are in the future. The Spectacular Now shows how not even a teenager can get away with living in the moment at the expense of the future. The now may be spectacular, but Sutter has to learn it’s not forever.

7 out of 10

The Spectacular Now (USA, 2013)

Directed by James Ponsoldt; written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber based on a novel by Tim Tharp; starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andre Royo, Bob Odenkirk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kyle Chandler.