Listen to the sounds of the bugs outside. I don’t know what it is about that sound, the intermittent drone of nondescript insect noise, but its lazy cadence can’t help but make me feel as if I’m 17 and I have nothing to do, and yet, I have the weight of the world on my shoulders too. This sound is laced through James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (2013), a movie about the moments when potential is both alluring and terrifying. The wheeze of insect noise has always represented this time for me: This invisible noise cannot quite be touched, yet it also cannot be escaped. Some of our most painful teenage realizations are that we’ll never feel fully adult and yet it will be upon us whether we like it or not.
The movie takes the conventions and clichés of a million teenage movies and breathes new life into them in the way of genuine humanity and heartbreaking pathos. We begin, as we have many times before, with Sutter (Miles Teller), a high-school senior who is writing his college application essay. We find he’s the life of the party, rarely without his pretty girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) and even more rarely without a drink. He’s skating through school and puts what little exists of his ambition into smuggling booze into school events and getting his friends laid. Cassidy suddenly doesn’t like being around him as much and drops him for another guy. He shrugs it off and hits more bottles and is awakened one dawn in the middle of a yard by Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a shy girl from his class. He asks her what she’s doing up at such an early hour. “Coming back from a party?” he croaks the question. She’s delivering newspapers on her paper route.
Sutter takes an interest in her, something the wallflower Aimee responds to, and she begins tutoring him in math and he begins tutoring her in high school. She is flattered and overjoyed to go to parties and prom and likes the danger of sneaking a drink here and there. The problem with Sutter is that here and there becomes everywhere.
Ponsoldt’s previous movie, Smashed (2012) explored the destructive effects of alcoholism on a loving relationship. The Spectacular Now centers on alcohol’s divisive abilities within a family. As Sutter and Aimee become closer, it’s clear she is going to become collateral in the war Sutter is battling within himself. His parents are divorced and he resents his mother for what he perceives as driving his father off. He hasn’t seen his father in years and therefore he can exist as a martyr in his psyche. When he does track him down, he learns a valuable lesson about meeting one’s heroes. Sutter’s father, played by Kyle Chandler, is a flighty wreck and reveals that while his infidelity is what wrecked his marriage, it was his decision to leave because he wasn’t able to live up to the standards of fatherhood and thought he was doing everyone a favor. Sutter, master bullshitter that he is, recognizes this immediately. This angers Sutter but it also gives him a road map to a life he’s been actively choosing even without his father’s hands-on guidance. When they sit across from each other at a booth in a diner, it physically shows the apple and the tree from the appropriate metaphorical distance.
The story of the hard-edged playboy finding redemption and healing through a sweet-natured girl is well-worn but The Spectacular Now goes deeper and is more heartfelt. What drives it is its honesty, its open warmth and its hopeful grace. Its story reminded me of an Elia Kazan movie, particularly Splendor in the Grass (1961) or East of Eden (1955), but Ponsoldt is cured of Kazan’s leaden hand. There’s no melodrama here, there’s no artifice; it simply shows people dealing with problems they can’t comprehend and are too ill-equipped to handle alone. Much is left to the viewer to interpret. Ponsoldt shows the drinking in the corners of the frame, so we see subtle passes of a flask, discreet spiking of drinks, the casual downing of a glass. The scene with Sutter’s father is another masterwork of restraint, as the father feels he’s pulling off this reunion and Sutter refuses to betray his true feelings, realizing that the last time he did that with this man, he was horribly burned. There aren’t any big speeches or dramatic flourishes but the momentous moments are clear enough, and the pressures, like school (Sutter is putting off applying to college), family (Sutter is wedged between a mother who has had the joy of life scrubbed out of her and a sister who has effectively sold out to a yuppy’s cushy existence), and love mount in a tangible way. In most recent teenage movies we care about how our hero will do at the big game, or during the big cheerleading competition; here we care about the rest of Sutter’s life.
It’s interesting to watch Ponsoldt from movie to movie. Smashedwas a bolt of lightning, a stylistic, fast-paced nightmare of booze and bad decisions. The Spectacular Now is more thoughtful, a little slower-paced, but they’re both informed by a delicate and moving love for the characters and for the tendencies of humans, even the destructive ones. <<There’s something of another great humanist in cinema, Francois Truffaut, in these films. Where Smashed was reminiscent of the movies of Truffaut’s electric early period like The Soft Skin (1964) and Jules and Jim (1962), The Spectacular Now belongs with Two English Girls (1971) and The Green Room (1978) in Truffaut’s later, more reflective era. What’s remarkable about The Spectacular Now is that it isn’t nostalgic nor does it judge from a distance of age; it’s made for all audiences and has something to say to everyone.
The script is also fine by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who add a little more verisimilitude than their overly whimsical (500) Days of Summer (2009) without sacrificing any of the sweetness. It keeps its focus but when it does stray, it’s in richly informative ways such as in the small interactions between Sutter and his sister and between Sutter and ex-girlfriend Cassidy (it does misstep in a side plot about one of Sutter’s friends giving Sutter grief about dating the less popular Aimee, which seems like a plot point from a much worse movie). Much of that sweetness is generated by Shailene Woodley, creating something quite different from the too-cool eye roller she played in The Descendants (2011). She looks the part (both she and Teller are not done up in the usual flattering way; they both have realistic teenage skin issues), and she’s a natural at making the dialogue seem as if it was formed just a moment ago in her head. Her polite and embarrassed eyes dart around in a controlled chaos, which give a good indication of what’s she’s thinking without overdoing it. Her naïveté is alluring, and while we think she’s in for heartbreak, we don’t think less of her for believing so strongly in love. She is the pure center of the movie and yet she’s more real than the ideas Sutter finds worthy of throwing his life away in the name of. She and Teller have a good dynamic. Her slightly awkward mannerisms, so universal of many teenagers growing into adulthood—like a fawn learning to walk—is a perfect complement to his affected smoothness. His performance doesn’t feel as genuine because Sutter isn’t; he’s much too guarded to dare not seem cool at all times. They share a love scene that is as good as any this year reserved as the one in Like Someone in Love (2013) but raw and charged, driven less by physical passion than by emotional expression.
This is a good use of Miles Teller, who has been mired in terrible movies like Project X (2012) and 21 & Over (2013) in which his flip attitude is mined for comedy. He’s plenty flip in The Spectacular Now but the movie doesn’t let him off that easy; it digs a little deeper and Teller plays Sutter as a laissez-faire partier who isn’t quite as cavalier as he wants to be. He knows that he’s a bit of a jerk and that he’s at his best when he’s around Aimee. That he thinks that’s a reason to push her away is his tragedy, but Teller is able to express that insight without over-the-top theatrics. He has a scene with his boss at a clothing store in which he is let go because he can’t stop drinking. His boss, who sees himself as a sort of mentor, tells him that if he were his father, he’d give him a lecture about his drinking. Sutter says, with some insight, “If you were my father, you wouldn’t have to.”
Too often movies about teenagers list the reasons for never growing up. The Spectacular Now makes the argument for adulthood. In a year full of characters who were stuck in some form of adolescence, from teenagers on spring break to teenagers in the Hollywood Hills and twenty-somethings on Wall Street, here’s a movie that doesn’t just show the emptiness of a life lived selfishly; it presents the fullness of the opposite. I wanted to be better after watching it and more than that, I wanted to just lie still and listen to the sound of the bugs.