"The Spectacular Now" Paints Affecting Portrait Of Alcoholism

“The Spectacular Now,” based on the novel by Tim Tharp, is an unusually evasive piece of filmmaking – hard to pin down, but all the more worthwhile for its craftiness. It obeys few (if any) genre signposts, hopping from comedy to drama to romance, ultimately coalescing into a hybrid of the three. It’s all of those things, but it’s also none of them, as its primary aim is to address a topic that’s rarely been seen on the big screen – teenage alcoholism.

How the film avoids becoming even slightly mawkish or phony is its greatest trick, sidestepping high school clichés at every turn but never outright rebuffing them. Miles Teller (“21 & Over”) stars as Sutter, a hard-drinking high school senior with a fractured family life and no future plans beyond phoning in a college entrance essay – a composition replete with curse words and a decidedly devil-may-care bent.

The picture opens to frenetic scenes of partying (but not the typically screwball movie kind of partying), Sutter accompanied by the equally feisty Cassidy (Brie Larson). Sutter tells us (via voiceover) that Cassidy has just dumped him, lamenting that she was his soulmate, the two of them always the life of any party. Quickly, the images and buzzing score explode into the film’s title card, an artful method of conveying the pic’s desire to be both mundane and monumental – a feat that it goes on to accomplish with ease.

Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) co-stars as Aimee, one of Sutter’s classmates. She’s nerdy (but not stereotypically so), grounded, naturally pretty, and endlessly compassionate. While on her morning paper route, Aimee finds a hungover Sutter sprawled out on a stranger’s lawn, and the two immediately find an easy chemistry that their friends find baffling. Although clearly interested in Aimee, an ever-intoxicated Sutter initially uses her to make Cassidy jealous.

Neither one of them has a father figure in their lives, Aimee’s dad having succumbed to addiction and Sutter’s dad having left his family years ago. This commonality only makes their bond stronger – at least initially. Aimee seems to think nothing of Sutter’s drinking, underlining her naivety and his irresistibly outgoing personality. He’s a drunk, but he’s a mostly functioning drunk. This mutual ignorance of a seriously problem only makes Sutter’s decision to track down his father that much more impactful.

Kyle Chandler (“Super 8”) plays Tommy, Sutter’s alcoholic dad. More than an alcoholic, he’s selfish and entirely pathetic, and his brief appearance in the film is its turning point. In coming face to face with his own “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” Sutter is forced to make a quick, reflexive decision as to his future. And it doesn’t play out how you might think.

An earlier scene in which Aimee and Sutter slowly glide down a darkened walkway, post-prom, is indicative of the picture’s unusually high level of efficiency. Director James Ponsoldt shoots nearly the entire scene in one continuous tracking shot, during which Aimee projects her hopes and dreams onto a very content but very drunk Sutter. In the hands of merely competent actors, the scene would already be heartbreaking, but Teller and Woodley are so masterful in their roles that the moment feels absolutely vital – Aimee’s words pulsating with an excitement that’s destined to be crushed by Sutter’s inner demons. It’s rare to witness a single scene – and a relatively simple one, at that – run such a gamut of emotions.

And while the direction and screenplay are great throughout – almost effortlessly so – it’s the two lead performances that are destined to be remembered. Teller and Woodley are nothing short of amazing here, from their first, most awkward interactions that simply ring true, to an unusually candid sex scene that does more to develop its characters than many films do in two hours.

Because of its blunt portrait of alcoholism, “The Spectacular Now” will be too much for some viewers. At its core, it’s just not nearly as frothy or sunny as its high school rom-com brethren, and that’s sure to disappoint many. But it’s genuine, affecting, and often beautiful. I hope and expect that it’ll become some kind of classic – cult or otherwise – and no hyperbole can do Teller’s and Woodley’s performances justice. Highly recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: August 2, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriter: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
MPAA Rating: R (for alcohol use, language and some sexuality – all involving teens)