The big take-away from The Spectacular Now is that Shailene Woodley is going to be a big star. In some ways, she’s paralleling the ascent of Jennifer Lawrence–regular on a TV series, strutting her stuff in a small indie, then being everywhere in a sci-fi dystopian movie based on a popular young adult novel. Woodley had a head start in movies, though, with her debut in The Descendants, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination.
The Spectacular Now is a better-than-average teen movie, which also has a star-making turn from its male lead, Miles Teller (who was so good in Rabbit Hole). But Woodley really steals the show, convincing us that she’s the kind of high school girl that nobody notices. I can still hear her embarrassed laugh when Teller tells her she’s beautiful, or the way she says “okay” to any suggestion that Teller makes, even when he asks her to a family dinner with ten minutes notice.
The film is ostensibly about Teller, who plays Sutter Keely, the most popular kid in school. At the film’s outset, he describes a certain fall from grace, when his equally popular girlfriend (Brie Larson) breaks up with him over a misunderstanding. Teller reminded me a lot of Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything–he’s cocksure with a gift for gab, but in this case he’s also a complete lush. He carries around a convenience store soda cup that is fortified from a flask. He drives drunk so often that a member of MADD might go mad watching him.
After a night of dipsomania after his breakup with Larson, Teller ends up passed out on the lawn of Woodley. She knows who he is; he doesn’t know her, but helps her with her paper route, which is really her mom’s. He likes the way she listens to him, and though he mystifies his best friend by going out with such a non-entity, he really likes her. I suspect that in the source book the character is a plain and nerdy girl–she’s into Manga–but Woodley is not plain, though she does not have beauty queen looks. It’s Woodley’s gifts that we can believe Teller might appear to be slumming, but she is really too good for him.
Teller gets her drinking, and in a lovely, authentic scene he takes her virginity. But he still pines for Larson, who is now dating the football captain. Meanwhile, Teller’s father, who walked out years before, remains a tantalizing mystery for him, and he gets his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to give him his number. It is this encounter with the dad, played by Kyle Chandler, that leads to the film’s explosive breaking point.
This is a very good film, and given the genre it’s fantastic, as high school films are a notorious dumping ground for people with no talent. It is directed with assurance by James Ponsoldt (who also directed the fine Smashed, with Winstead–he knows how to showcase actresses) and written by the team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote (500) Days of Summer. The film was shot in Georgia, and it has a lovely fetid feel to it.
Some of it is a bit trite–the film is framed as a college entrance essay by Teller, and I swear I’ve seen that before. The title is also not very interesting–it refers to Teller’s philosophy of living in the moment, and not thinking about the future.
But I don’t think the film is quite as good as Woodley and Teller, who bring it extra dimension. We can be expected to hear much more from them in the future.
My grade for The Spectacular Now: B.