This review was originally published on January 25, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
How does someone become a dirtbag? Not by choice, but by failing to heed the warning signs. As with a horror film where you think, "no, don't go in the basement," you'll watch young Sutter Keely ("Footloose"'s Miles Teller) make bad decisions and think "no, don't do that! You're a good kid!"
Among "The Spectacular Now"'s more remarkable accomplishments is kneecapping most high school movie cliches. The major story beats remain conventional - boy meets girl, they help one another grow - but the way in which their presented remains unique and exciting.
For starters, one must go far into the film before you can really get into the head of the lead character. He presents himself as the life of the party, but he isn't a handsome jock. He appears to ooze confidence, but inside he is wounded from a father who abandoned him leaving only a predilection towards alcoholism.
He and Aimee (Shailene Woodley) meet cute - if you can call waking up hungover on the front lawn cute. She, too, defies conventions, as she is by all rights an attractive girl, but is so shy she adopts a persona that grants her social invisibility. Starting off as charity work (though also a bit of a rebound from his popular ex) Sutter starts dating Aimee, and soon they fall very much in love. Sutter pushes Aimee to stand up to her mother and announce her intentions to leave for college. He also gets her to loosen up by sharing in his love of booze. In response, Aimee gets Sutter to demand to know where his father is and to go visit him (a very bad decision.)
These two young, good-natured characters are smart enough that, if they were watching the movie of their lives, would know what changes to make. Sadly, it's never like that when you are in it, so they are doomed to let insecurity and alcohol become roadblocks.
From a distance "The Spectacular Now" is mere soap opera, but it is one of those films that grow more fascinating upon inspection. Is Aimee Sutter's savior or an enabler? Are Sutter's mother and sister aware of his constant drinking? Is Sutter really in love with Aimee, or does focusing on making her cool just keep him occupied from worrying about his own life? Blessedly, the answers to these questions remain ambiguous. Furthermore, the script never allows for any real villains. Even the guy screwing around with Sutter's ex-girlfriend is treated sympathetically. When Sutter's math teacher (Andre Royo) tries to encourage him to grow up and take responsibility, Sutter's blunt rejection of racing towards adulthood is shocking in its simplicity. "Are YOU happy?" he asks.
While "The Spectacular Now" wins a lot of points for avoiding conventional scenes, there is a somewhat obnoxious framing device. Nothing like a college application essay to force kids to get all introspective. The first act has some annoying "ain't this wacky?" music set to some sequences, but I'm going to give director James Ponsoldt enough credit and say that this forced-lightheartedness is intentional, and meant to act as a contrast to the later, darker half of the film.
It's that second half where the movie elevates from nice teenage story to a genuine, dare-I-say important film with some bold choices. I feel compelled to disclose that I am acquaintances with two members of "The Spectacular Now"'s production, but I'm also someone who is happy to ignore the few who might raise an eyebrow at a conflict of interest in exchange for delineating the finer points about this film. The message is clear that people have to guide people in the right direction, whether it is comfortable to do so or not.
SCORE: 8.3 / 10