Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson
Directed by: James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”)
Written by: Scott Neustadter (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”)
As we meet our protagonist, high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), he’s drinking a beer, writing a curse word-laden college essay he’s clearly not taking seriously. It not only serves as a placeholder for his character later in the film, but it introduces the audience to some darker themes, chiefly underage drinking and borderline alcoholism. As the film continues, we see bits and pieces of these themes, although nothing really scratches below the surface. It’s an issue that plagues the new coming-of-age drama, “The Spectacular Now.”
After some heavy drinking, popular high school slacker Sutter wakes up to find he has passed out in the lawn of less popular albeit sweet schoolmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley). As their friendship blossoms into something more, Sutter finds himself surprised with how much he cares about Aimee, and how difficult their relationship could possibly become because of the heavy baggage he carries.
Woodley, who was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her outstanding performance in 2011’s “The Descendants,” is in top form here. Aided by her plain clothes and lack of make-up, she is able to encapsulate the attitude and personality of a girl who is totally comfortable in her own skin, but also the naivety that goes along with being a girl who never had a rambunctious childhood. Her scenes with Teller bring forward a natural on-screen relationship that really grounds the film.
Teller, while good, is only marginally believable as a super-confident, slick and fast-talking teenager. He oozes coolness, but at times it’s difficult to understand why. Kyle Chandler, who is very slowly starting to reap the benefits of his Emmy win for the final season of “Friday Night Lights,” gives the strongest performance of the supporting cast as Sutter’s father. From the second his character appears on screen, Chandler is dialed in and adds little nuances in speech patterns and attitudes that make his scenes a joy to watch.
Frankly, the acting is solid all around. The problem, however, is that despite a wealth of interesting characters, director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) doesn’t spend enough time to get to know them. Sutter’s boss played by Bob Odenkirk or his good friend Ricky played by Masam Holden are just two examples of characters who have a lot to add in their brief moments on screen, but then disappear for large chunks of time. We don’t get to truly know these characters, which is disappointing considered the depth they appear to add.
As mentioned before, “The Spectacular Now” presents a lot of darker themes that might not be in a typical coming-of-age film. Sutter, who is finishing high school, is essentially an alcoholic, who drives drunk on several occasions during the film. There’s also the slow corruption of Aimee, who goes from a straight-edge teen to taking swigs of hard alcohol from a flask. The problem, however, is that while these themes are presented and touched on, they’re never fully explored. We see minor consequences of Sutter’s drinking problems, but the stakes are never high and true darkness is never revealed
If nothing else, “The Spectacular Now” is a well-made film featuring fine performances, but the lack of depth in many different facets leaves the viewer wanting more. With such promising elements, it’s a shame the final product is decidedly unspectacular.