Jan. 3rd, 2014

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Sutter Keeley (Miles Teller) doesn't seem to have the problems that usually plague teenage boys in coming-of-age films. He's a charismatic and charming high school senior who has no trouble with the opposite sex, works a job he likes, and doesn't lack for self-confidence. Sure, he's getting over a bad break-up with longtime girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) and he's in danger of failing trigonometry, but soon enough he's getting into the good graces of another classmate, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). He gets her to tutor him and romance blossoms, but Aimee isn't like the girls Sutter usually dates, who just want to have a good time. The possibility of a real commitment forces him to examine his own life and choices, and he doesn't like what he finds.

Shailene Woodley is rightly getting a lot of praise for her performance as Aimee, a sweet girl who lets Sutter coak her out of her shell, and then bravely tries to weather the ups and downs of a tumultuous first relationship. She delivers exactly the right kind of unaffected, genuine performance that the film needs to work as intended. However, it was Miles Teller I came out of this film really impressed with. I'd seen him in a few films before this, but never with the material available to him to really show what he was capable of. Teller looks a little like Shia LaBeouf, but has a far more appealing presence and nuanced delivery. There aren't many young actors in stories like this who can manage to make me forget that I'm watching an actor, and Teller managed that effortlessly within a few minutes of screen time.

It helps that this is a very well-written character piece about a teenage boy that probes deeper than you might expect. James Ponsoldt's last film was the underseen "Smashed," about a pair of young alcoholics in crisis. Sutter likewise has a serious drinking problem, the extent of which is slowly revealed as the film progresses. However, the drinking doesn't define the character and the addiction narrative doesn't define the film. There's a whole mess of other issues that are fueling Sutter's troubles, the most fundamental of which is that he's romanticized the idea of living in the now and has rejected any ambitions for a future that's any different. There are also long-simmering issues with his estranged parents (Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Kyle Chandler) and sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in play. On top of that, he hasn't really come to terms with his breakup with Cassidy.

It's been a pretty good year for movies about teenage boys making the bumpy transition into adulthood, with "The Kings of Summer" and "The Way, Way Back." But despite the familiar trappings of young romance, alcoholism, and dysfunctional families, this one felt the least contrived and the most mature. The scenes of Sutter and Aimee's relationship progressing, from tentative flirtation through the emotional fireworks of arguments and fights, are all fantastic. And I love how the story doesn't get hung up on sexual intimacy or disapproving friends or other typical sources of conflict. Instead the conflict comes straight from Sutter himself, from his flaws and self-delusions. The buildup is so nicely handled too - a seemingly inconsequential beer bottle in the opening shot, Sutter telling a friend that dating Aimee is out of charity - and it really makes the more dramatic developments feel earned.

In addition to Teller and Woodley, there are several other performances that should be singled out for praise here. Brie Larson has only a few scenes as Cassidy, but uses them to convey so much about the relationship her character had with Sutter, refuting the dismissive version of events he presents at the beginning of the film. There's potentially an entire other film about the relationship and breakup from her point of view. And then there's the brief appearance by Kyle Chandler in some of the film's most devastating scenes. He may not be onscreen for very long, but the impact is immense. I also liked Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter's sister Holly, who in her own way is as responsible as her parents for the state of Sutter's home life.

"The Spectacular Now" is one of the year's best, but because of its subject matter and its relatively modest pedigree, it's one of those films that's in the greatest danger of falling through the cracks and being overlooked. It would be far too easy to lump it in with all the other indie dramas about substance addiction or privileged, photogenic male teenagers struggling to overcome personal adversity. This one is different, both for the quality of its storytelling and the strength of its message. It doesn't say anything that we haven't heard before, but says it in terms that are uniquely personal, heartfelt, and affecting.

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