Sutter Keely is too cool for school. Literally. The charming, self-assured, smooth-talking, hard-drinking high school senior is so enamored of the moment, he hardly sees the value of wasting time with studying, or learning, or doing homework, or applying to college. His plans rarely extend beyond the day, and they always consist of getting his buzz on, finding the party, and becoming the life of it. His compass, though moored by good intentions, has led him adrift.
It is not difficult to imagine a Hollywood teen sexploitation comedy featuring Sutter as some kind of heroic, albeit grotesque, obnoxious caricature of adolescent alpha-masculinity. Fortunately, in their sensitively observed adaptation of Tim Tharp's award-winning novel The Spectacular Now, director James Ponsoldt, writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, and actor Miles Teller have conspired to create a multidimensional Sutter, a tempest of insecurity bristling beneath a cocksure veneer. Teller imbues Sutter with an innate likability, which has led some to compare him to Ferris Bueller or The Sure Thing-era John Cusack. But Teller's performance is deeper than these; he exudes the charisma of young Sean Penn, the effortless confidence of early Tom Cruise, and Matthew McConaughey's ability to make every line of dialogue sing. This is a star-making turn.
Shailene Woodley not only matches Teller's performance step for step, but, like the famous line about Ginger Rogers, she does so backward — though not in heels. As Aimee Finicky, the unlikely girl who jostles Keely from the myopic sphere of the Sutter-verse, Woodley strips down her performance to essentials. The extreme close-up that introduces her immediately following the credits tells it all: No makeup. No frills. Spare. Honest. Watching her peel back the layers of an academically gifted, Manga- and horse-obsessed sci-fi geek-girl is a revelation. Rather than shed nerd-glasses and shake her hair out of a bun to reveal the beautiful swan beneath an ugly duckling façade, Woodley simply (ha!) becomes an awkward, self-assured girl who knows she's out of step with the world, but who doesn't much care. She has dreams, and she intends to follow them.
By allowing scenes to play out in real time without interrupting with attention-grabbing cuts, Ponsoldt displays tremendous confidence as a director, shows faith in the material, and, most notably, displays trust in his actors. He gives his cast room to work, and they take full advantage of it. Even the supporting roles — notably Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler, and a sneaky good Jennifer Jason Leigh — breathe authenticity.
I can think of few other modern films that capture the awkwardness, vulnerability, joy, seriousness, revelation, intimacy, and wonder of teenage love — Stephen Chbosky's Perks of Being a Wallflower comes to mind, as does Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet. Why a film like The Spectacular Now is such an anomaly in the current marketplace is a mystery. Ironically, the film earned an R-rating for sex, drinking, and language, a designation that technically makes it off-limits to the very audience it so honestly — and accurately — portrays.