Aug. 23--Few screen romances in recent years have been as tender and hopeful as the one in "The Spectacular Now." This is another way of saying that few teen characters have been as likable as the ones played here by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, two of the more talented and welcome young actors working in movies.
Both are in their early 20s, although the film casts them as high-school students; both are attractive, yet "normal." Unlike most young actresses cast as wallflowers or late bloomers, we can believe Woodley -- George Clooney's daughter in "The Descendants" -- as a pretty girl who goes unnoticed by the callow boys in her class; we can believe Teller as an irresponsible, irrepressible class clown who can charm the birds out of the trees and into his bed, despite his pug nose and slightly off-center features.
Teller -- introduced to many moviegoers through a supporting role in Craig Brewer's "Footloose" -- is affable, popular Sutter Keely, the film's narrator and "the life of every party." His dry Vince Vaughn humor covers up what viewers will quickly identify as a serious alcohol problem. The film's title finds an equivalent meaning in Sutter's eccentric choice for a favorite song, Faron Young's 1955 recording of Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young. A friend offers Sutter a compliment that cuts: "You're not the joke everyone thinks, man."
After breaking up with his cheerleader girlfriend (Brie Larson), Sutter wakes up, following a drunken blackout, in the front yard of bookish Aimee Finecky (Woodley), a classmate he doesn't really know. A friendship develops and becomes what a publicist if not a moviegoer might describe as an unlikely romance.
Both products of fatherless working-class homes, the two connect. "Dude, she's not a rebound!" Sutter insists to a skeptical friend, as the movie builds suspense around the idea that the sexually experienced and reckless Sutter will break the heart of shy, sweet Aimee, who never before has had a boyfriend, perhaps never even been kissed.
Directed by James Ponsoldt with compassion, a wonderful sense of pace and place and a nice eye for warm performances and warm visuals (amber bar interiors, leafy semi-suburban exteriors), the movie occasionally digresses from its central relationship, as when Sutter and Aimee make an ill-fated road trip so Sutter can reunite with his ne'er-do-well barfly father (beautifully played by Kyle Chandler). Sutter, like the moviegoer, recognizes dad as a cautionary example; for Sutter, he's a mirror image of an awful possible destiny. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber -- working from a novel by Tim Tharp -- make this point without belaboring it.
Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, an odd paradox emerges that reveals a serious flaw: The more we learn about Aimee -- the more she is presented as an in-depth, complicated character -- the more she is revealed to be, in fact, just a prop for Sutter's rehabilitation and redemption. "I don't really have any stories," the self-deprecating Aimee insists, early in the film; the movie works to give her one but then dismisses it, insisting -- as the first-person narration at the start suggests -- that this is Sutter's story, after all. I
"The Spectacular Now" is exclusively at the Malco Studio on the Square.
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