Slapping the label “a coming of age story” on a movie is a lazy and quick way to communicate to audiences that 1) you're going to see a story about youths and 2) the plot is going to have a more serious tone than, say, a movie featuring a character from a Disney TV show. The designation is rarely accurate, but gives potential moviegoers an easy way to categorize a movie. The Breakfast Club is a coming of age story; Sixteen Candles is not. Stand By Me and Boyz in the Hood are coming of age stories; Dazed and Confused and The Karate Kid are not.
The Spectacular Now can truly be called a coming of age tale because, unlike so many other movies to which that moniker is applied, a character truly does mature in some way and is able to see and interact with the world in a way appropriate to his age. Who wouldn’t want to be like Sutter when they were in high school? He’s well-liked, handsome and can carry on a conversation with just about anybody. But that façade masks a very dark inner core which Teller, as one of our most charismatic and entertaining young actors, portrays with a perfect amount of fragility.
Director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) takes us on Sutter’s journey to becoming a grown up but keeps us at a very safe distance, much like how Sutter himself prefers his relationships. We venture down the rabbit hole that is Sutter’s inner turmoil because he would never let anyone into that place. The closest we get is his moments of honesty with Aimee. Ponsoldt isn’t concerned with big, flashy performances or huge public blow-ups. He lets Sutter battle his demons in a quiet, private matter befitting a kid who is too insecure to let anyone in.
The Spectacular Now was adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the two brilliant wordsmiths responsible for (500) Days of Summer. A complete 180 degree turn from that previous film in terms of tone and dialogue, The Spectacular Now speaks the truth of what teenagers are really like: selfish, indecisive and impulsive. The words the characters speak could be pulled directly from any high school in the country with their bumbling explanations and quick-tempered reactions. Neustadter and Weber write beautifully and are fortunate to have a director and cast that so perfectly understand their words.
Teller gives his most emotionally complex performance since Rabbit Hole, balancing comedy and drama like a seasoned pro. Teller has the confidence of Vince Vaughn, allowing him to orchestrate scenes, when necessary, at his pace and daring his co-stars to keep up. But, Teller is also capable of great emotional depth that we see hidden behind his reassuring grin. Playing drunk is no easy feat, but Teller is quite astute and plays Sutter with the right degree of “I’ve got this under control” and “Let’s party.”
The true heart of the film, though, is Woodley as Aimee, the one person who cares about Sutter regardless of his drinking problem. Woodley is absolutely terrific in the film and, if there is any justice in the world, will score her second Academy Award nomination for a performance which is so naturalistic and quiet that she appears not to be acting at all. Stripped of all make up and given a thrift shop wardrobe, Woodley shines as a girl who lights up whenever Sutter is in the room and is given the confidence to stand up to her emotional abusive mother. With every smile, frown, tear and laugh, Woodley proves she is the most talented young actress working today (sorry, Jennifer Lawrence) and one who has the possibility of becoming this generation’s Meryl Streep.
It’s rare that a film is able to capture the reality of being a teenager, but The Spectacular Now manages to do just that while also dealing with issues that can affect just about anyone.