There have been after-school specials on the topics addressed in The Spectacular Now, but the movie does not feel at all like a lesson.
Modeled on one of Say Anything and Almost Famous writer-director Cameron Crowe's charismatically nerdy protagonists, Sutter (Miles Teller) is smart, glib and, we gradually begin to realize, troubled.
Mirroring the way it might work if we met Sutter in real life, The Spectacular Now doesn't come out and say what troubles Sutter, but the clues gradually add up. About halfway through the movie, we realize the version of himself Sutter presents is not the whole story.
I can't remember another movie that has approached a character the way The Spectacular Now does, but it makes perfect sense: After all, who among us is a reliable narrator of our own lives? Is that even possible?
Director James Ponsoldt handles that material beautifully. His approach to Sutter is convincing because it shows the sad guy underneath the wit. Same goes for Aimee (Shailene Woodley), the bookish girl Sutter initially uses and then realizes he has fallen for, almost by accident.
The casting of Woodley smacks of Hollywood, the only place in the world where it is thought that sticking a pair of glasses on a voluptuous, effervescent beauty somehow turns her into an oddball loner. But Woodley's shy performance is detailed and credible.
When it comes to character, The Spectacular Now lives up to the adjective in its title — but the plotting rarely rings true. I didn't buy the way the film uses the character of Sutter's dad, although Kyle Chandler reveals a new dimension of his talent in the role. Sutter's relationship with his older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) isn't much more believable, especially since their key scene is poorly filmed. She keeps looking at him as if he's standing above her, but he's sitting next to her.
And I really can't stand the deus ex machina of The Spectacular Now, in which another character's catastrophe serves as a wake-up call for Sutter. Usually, the movie's approach to its characters is generous, but in those scenes, it suddenly feels as if the only character it cares about is Sutter.
What happens in The Spectacular Now is not uncommon in movies. The screenwriters craft two vibrant characters and then aren't sure where to go with them. But even if it feels like the events of the film let Sutter and Aimee down, they remain people we root for until the end.
'The Spectacular Now'
R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality — all involving teens. A24 Films. 1:35. Fayette Mall.