Sutter (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who thinks he has it all figured out. He’s ultra-popular at his school, has a gorgeous girlfriend (Brie Larson), and a part-time job at a men’s store that he loves. He’s also an alcoholic, but he’d never admit it.
But- when his girlfriend dumps him, he tries to rebound with the shy Aimee (Shailene Woodley), and eventually he comes to realize that his life may not be as great as he thinks. SPOILERS: when I posted this review in January, some readers complained it was a little heavy on the spoilers. I trimmed the review a tad, and with one exception, what’s left is all from the first twenty minutes or so of the film. The only exception is clearly marked for spoilers, but I personally don’t believe the spoilers are heavy at all, and certainly gives away less than any of the trailers. That said, I totally respect people wanting to go in fresh, so look out for the bit labeled SPOILER. REVIEW: THE SPECTACULAR NOW is a good companion piece to director James Ponsoldt’s last film, SMASHED- which was among one of my favorite movies at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. This year, Ponsoldt is back with yet another movie about alcoholism, but by making his lead a good deal younger- who’s just at the beginning of his battle with the sauce, the energy is all different.
In high school, we all had friends like Sutter- or wanted to. He was the good time guy who always brought beer to the party, was liked by everyone, regardless of clique, and most importantly- liked everyone else in return. For the first half of the film, Teller, in a star-making part, plays him like an alcoholic Ferris Bueller. He’s young enough that a hangover is no big deal, and he’s good enough at coping with a buzz that no one, not his teachers or his friendly boss at the men’s store (a nice cameo by Bob Odenkirk) knows that his ever-present big-gulp soda is loaded with whiskey. The incorrigible Sutter makes it all look cute, and once he hooks up with the shy Aimee (an intensely likable Shailene Woodley)- he even gets her to cut loose, and join him in the occasional binge. For the first half, I was a bit taken aback by how lightly Ponsoldt was treating Sutter’s alcoholism, with this being a far less sobering film than SMASHED. Heck, THE SPECTACULAR NOW was even “fun” and I started wishing I had a good buddy like Sutter when I was in school. Of course, I should have known this was all part of Ponsoldt’s big plan, as about mid-way through he pulls the rug out from under us with an extended scene featuring a gritty cameo by Kyle Chandler, as a man with whom Sutter has an awful lot in common. This scene is really the centerpiece of the film, and from then on the tone changes markedly. From here, THE SPECTACULAR NOW becomes a pretty gripping, if ultimately hopeful and maybe even uplifting drama, similar to the best John Hughes films and the recent PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Sutter’s journey is not treated like some kind of after-school special. Sutter, like most teen alcoholics- or heck- even just teens in general, can be exasperating to watch- but Teller’s so likable you’ll be desperate for Sutter to pull himself together. In my opinion, a teen film like THE SPECTACULAR NOW should be required viewing in high schools, as it speaks to the dangers of pissing your life away through booze without being preachy or schmaltzy. Along with PERKS, it’s nice to see a new generation of directors making teen films that would do John Hughes proud, and are universal enough in their themes that they aren’t limited to a solely teen audience. If you liked PERKS, keep your eyes peeled for SPECTACULAR NOW. It’s an uplifting crowd pleaser, that’s still gutsy enough to cover some dark territory, and depict some hard lessons. It’s one of my favorite movies of the fest.