I normally don't believe the teenagers in most films about teenagers. Hollywood teens aren't like any teens I've ever met, even back when I was one. So it comes as a surprise that I believed the teens in The Spectacular Now (2013, directed by James Ponsoldt) implicitly. There's a level of verisimilitude in this movie that's so unusual for films of its type that it's a shock to see it on screen. Movies are almost never this clear-eyed and candid about what it's like to be a teenager.
Sutter Keely is a teenager hellbent on going nowhere. He has a reputation as a party guy and he blows off his classes with a contempt born of myopia about the uses of education. Sutter isn't stupid. He's just smart enough to glide through life. He lives for the moment. So much so that he can't see his way to the end of a personal essay for a college application. This all starts to come tumbling down when he breaks up with his long-time girlfriend, Cassidy. This sends him into a spiral of resentment and partying to spite her. He winds up passed out on the lawn of a house that is not his. This is where Aimee Fenicky finds him as she's delivering papers one morning. She knows him, of course, but he doesn't know her. They travel in very different social circles. Grateful for her help, he takes a liking to her and decides to take her under his wing. Aimee couldn't be more different from Sutter: she's studious and bookish. She likes manga. She's been accepted to college even though she doesn't think her mother will let her go. Her mother is her bete noir. Like Sutter, she's the child of a single-parent household. Sutter has no intentions of falling for Aimee, and he tells his friend that that's true. But he can't help himself. He encourages her to live for the now, to loosen up and have fun once in a while. She tries to get Sutter through his final math class so he can graduate. Sutter is his own worst enemy, though: he's got a serious drinking problem (Cassidy asks him if he's turned Aimee into a lush yet at one point) and he's got a deluded idea that things would be okay if his mom hadn't kicked his dad out of the house. To this end, he decides to go meet his dad. He gets a shock when he does. His dad is just like him, or what Sutter might become if he continues to live in the now: self-involved, callous, just about worthless. It's a slap in the face, and he has to confront bad things about himself...
I'm of two minds about this film. I admire the effort the filmmakers and actors--particularly Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as Sutter and Aimee, who are both extrordinary--put into characters who seem real, with interior lives and realistic aspirations. This is something that this film does well enough to set itself apart from other films with similar DNA. It's believable that a party animal like Sutter will be utterly bereft when the party is over and life intrudes. It's believable that the socially awkward Aimee would tolerate Sutter's borderline abuse of her late in the film because she sees herself simultaneously as undatable and as someone who can redeem Sutter. Lovers have their illusions, and this film is built around Sutter and Aimee's illusions. I love the naturalism of this film's sex scenes, which are not coy or fetishized or creepy, but are rather awkward and sweet. I love all of this. It all rings true to me, and I believe it. I don't even mind the haze of teen film nostalgia that informs the way most of this is filmed.
What I'm less sanguine about is the tidy psychological underpinnings that drive the story. In some cases, these underpinnings make no sense. For example: when Sutter eventually meets his dad, his dad parrots Sutter's own world view back at him. This turn of events does not ring true because Sutter has had no contact with his dad for most of his life. Is Sutter's slacker-ness genetic? It almost has to be, because Sutter can't have learned it at home, at least not when he was in a position to absorb it. (I should mention that Sutter's dad is perfectly believable as a character, especially as played against type by Kyle Chandler). Later in the film, when confronted with a work opportunity after he's torpedoed his chances for college, Sutter makes a choice that I also find hard to credit. The film elides a family life for Aimee that don't ring quite true, either, particularly her mother's reluctance to send her to college, which seems like a bullshit barrier placed in her way by a screenwriter more than it feels like a genuine, organic conflict. Nor do I understand her willingness to grant Sutter the benefit of the doubt at the end of the movie. This all hurts the film.
Still, the central relationship between Sutter and Aimee is closely observed and the performances are good enough to stand up to the attention. Miles Teller captures enough of the nuance of a high-functioning drunk to communicate his character's essential maladjustments, while Shailene Woodley underplays her own obvious good looks to communicate an endearing awkwardness. The quality of performance extends into the supporting cast. Jennifer Jason Leigh is good as Sutter's mom, while Bob Odenkirk, Andre Royo, and Brie Larson do well with small parts. Larson is a standout as Cassidy, Sutter's ex. Cassidy might be a stereotype in another movie, the kind of stereotype this film elides in its opening scenes and then explodes. Instead, she's as fleshed out and real as the leads. She too, has an inner life and aspirations beyond the plot of this film. The only character who really strikes a wrong not is Sutter's sister, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who seems like a character from another movie.
In all, this is what one hopes to find in a teen film (particularly if one is far beyond their teen years, as I am): it's bittersweet, respectful of the humanity of its characters, and ultimately hopeful that its characters will make the world their own, eventually. Or, at the very least, won't be broken by it.