Returning to Sundance Film Festival just one year after his overlooked drama Smashed, director James Ponsoldt shows a mature step forward with his coming-of-age film The Spectacular Now. Both featuring powerhouse lead performances (with Smashed‘s Mary Elizabeth Winstead even returning in a supporting role here), his latest film feels like a wholly accomplished work, familiar in content, but one that packs an emotionally-devastating punch without an ounce of pretension.
High school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is loved by everyone he meets and he returns the favor, whether it be the geek crowd, the popular kids or anyone in between. Always having the right (or at least the the most agreeable) word for every occasion, he slides by on his friendly demeanor, not putting any stakes into school, or even sports, rather living in the “now.” After getting dumped by his girlfriend (Brie Larson) due to a genuine mishap, Sutter’s dark side bubbles up when he continues to use alcohol to mend the pain.
Following a particularly rough night of partying, he wakes up on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), an unassuming classmate he barely recalls, but one that is happy to help him to his feet and he reciprocates the favor by assisting on her early morning paper route. As Sutter and Aimee’s relationship blossoms, despite their sincere chemistry, it’s apparent the former is destroying the latter’s life. The charming, innocent Aimee opens herself up to Sutter, but with each swig from his flask and every deflection when it comes to conversing about the problems mounting up in his life, it is heartbreaking to witness his brutal reluctance.
Showing his talents in a few, tragic brief scenes alongside Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, Teller has finally been given a role with considerable weight here. He commands every scene, especially alongside the stellar Woodley, playing a shyer character than her confident turn in The Descendants. Ponsoldt desires a deep investment in these teenagers, displayed in a remarkable, single steadi-cam shot lasting around five minutes, following our leads getting acquainted, and serving as our intimate connection for their relationship to follow.
With a refreshingly honest style, (500) Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber do not approach the coming-of-age genre with fantasy-filled flair, rather delving into difficult truths of what life can bring depending which road one takes following graduation. A subplot featuring Sutter’s estranged father (Kyle Chandler) is especially poignant, finally giving our lead a wake-up call when it comes to his own dithering journey.
While the majority of the proceedings are handled with candid honesty and coherent character actions, if there is one misstep, it occurs near the finale. A few shocking events have seemingly little ramifications, but then again, there is much more at stake here. A rare coming-of-age film, The Spectacular Now doesn’t simply take a snapshot of some of the most important years of development, but rather echoes the consequences of complex life-changing choices.