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Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley Both Shine in “The Spectacular Now”

January 20, 2014

By John Corrado

The Spectacular Now PosterSutter Keely (Miles Teller) lives his life in the moment, afraid to acknowledge his past and terrified of moving forward into the future.  He’s stuck and drifting through his high school existence, aided by alcohol and craving the attention that comes from being the life of party, hence the title The Spectacular Now.

I regretfully never got a chance to offer my full thoughts on The Spectacular Now when the film opened last summer, but there is a certain symmetry to finally writing about this one now.  The film first premiered at Sundance exactly a year ago this month, and was released on DVD last Tuesday.

After breaking up with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), Sutter drowns his sorrows in alcohol and drunk driving, waking up on a random front lawn with Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) standing over him.  She knows his face as they both go to the same school, but he doesn’t recognize her because they run in different circles.  Sutter is the popular kid struggling to graduate, Aimee is the academic who sits alone at lunch, tasking away at an early morning paper route to help her mother pay the bills.

The two mismatched teens find themselves enjoying their time together, and Aimee starts falling for him.  Sutter is just trying to help her move forward and break out of her shell, introducing her to alcohol and bringing her more into his increasingly self destructive world.  He’s not looking for commitment, and the moment he freezes up is when she suggests a future that involves him.  Sutter is scared of moving forward because he sees his own future on the face of his father (Kyle Chandler), the life of the party who left him years ago and never found a new identity.

The naturalistic screenplay was adapted from the excellent novel by Tim Tharp.  I read the book last year in anticipation of the movie, and was deeply moved by these people and the world they inhabit.  There are some differences between both mediums, the biggest being that the final scene of the book breaks our hearts, where the movie ends on a note that helps fix them.  But both are excellent versions of the same story, variations on the same characters and ideas, a tune originally composed by Tim Tharp that has been transposed by James Ponsoldt.  The director is no stranger to themes of alcoholism, having made his debut with the quiet drama Smashed.

The entire cast is excellent, with Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley both delivering remarkably nuanced performances.  Miles Teller lights up the screen in The Spectacular Now, but there is also a sense of hurting beneath the surface that is revealed throughout, pain that comes to the forefront during the often heartbreaking last act.  Shailene Woodley plays a character that feels refreshingly real, pretty without the aid of makeup, and alive with dreams for a brighter future that could be dashed by the normal anxieties of moving forward.  When the two characters make love, we get one of the most beautifully realistic sex scenes in recent memory, nervous and unsure but deeply caring and intimate.

Both actors have bright futures.  Miles Teller is one of three attractive leads in the upcoming romantic comedy That Awkward Moment, and is currently earning raves again at Sundance for his performance as a drummer in the opening night film Whiplash, which seems to be one of the biggest hits of this year’s festival.  Shailene Woodley might just be poised for mainstream breakout status with Divergent looming on the horizon as the start of a potential franchise, and her role as a teenager dying of cancer in the upcoming The Fault in Our Stars, also based on a young adult novel.

There is an appealingly natural look and feel throughout The Spectacular Now that recalls the great teen films of the 1980s, a style that has been popular as of late with gems like Terri and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  And indeed while watching the film, I was reminded of Cameron Crowe’s 1989 classic Say Anything, right down to the fact that Miles Teller has a similar screen presence to John Cusack.  Just like that iconic film, The Spectacular Now could easily become another touchstone of modern coming of age stories, and right now I’m happy to count this one among the best movies of 2013.

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