spectacular now

“Life is short. Live in ‘the moment’ more.”

Some variation on this message has been delivered to audiences of all stripes, across multiple media, for many many years now. Countless stories have featured fearful protagonists living safe lives who learn how to take more risks, usually with the help of a colorful new person, often a manic pixie dream girl. The doldrums of conventional life are sloughed away, as each hero learns to embrace the “now,” often through being spontaneous in the form of doing something loud or destructive.

It’s that “now” to which the title of The Spectacular Now refers, and yet it’s actually ironic. While on the surface it appears to be another one of those “letting loose” stories, the movie instead picks apart that idea. In the process, what emerges is one of the freshest takes on the teen romance genre in years.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a manic pixie dream boy. An enthusiastic partygoer who fully embraces the role of class clown, Sutter hits a rough spot when his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) dumps him. A mournful bender ends with him awakening in a hangover on a stranger’s lawn, with quiet, goody-two-shoes girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley) standing over him. Sutter and Aimee strike up an unlikely friendship that leads to an even unlikelier romance, as he gets her to loosen up her subdued, meek nature.

It’s an old trope – the living-it-up guy who transforms the geeky girl into a fountain of fun. But here’s the thing: Sutter is terrible for Aimee, and his presence in her life does far more harm than good. It becomes quickly apparent that he’s not just a party guy but a full-on functional alcoholic, a bitter home life having driven him to constantly seek to numb his feelings. He is never seen without a convenience store cup that he’s spiked with whiskey (from his own flask). Aimee’s process of “letting go” consists of her taking on all of his bad habits.

Teller and Woodley both murder their roles. Teller, who appears in every scene, does a magnificent job of keeping Sutter likeable even as the depths of his screwed-up-ness become increasingly apparent and he keeps hurting those around him. He has an effortless charm that’s covering up some unbelievable anguish. His whole persona is an overcompensation, as he’s a loving person who doesn’t feel worthy of anyone’s love.

Woodley, meanwhile, is perfectly acting without appearing to act at all. She has become a subtle, fully-realized introverted kid, without any of the stereotypes normally applied to such characters. Her quiet sweetness makes her descent all the more painful to see. The best moment in the movie belongs to her, in a scene that’s nothing more than Aimee deciding whether or not to get on a bus. It’s simple but agonizingly suspenseful, and it all rests on Woodley’s shoulders. In fact, the movie suffers for not fully exploring Aimee’s character. Her arc ends up half heartedly resolved, with a good deal of development left offscreen.

While this is the two leads’ show, they’re bolstered by a dynamite supporting cast, most of whom stand out despite appearing in just two or three scenes. There’s Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s weary mother. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his sister. Bob Odenkirk as his boss. Dayo Okeniyi as the popular kid with whom Cassidy hooks up after dumping Sutter. And then there’s Cassidy herself. Brie Larson’s role in Short Term 12 will (justifiably) suck up all her attention this year, but she does terrific work in this part, which demands a sense of weird adolescent conflictedness that she just nails.

It’s not just these performances but how they intermix that gives the film such a great sense of verisimilitude when it comes to youth. Even though Sutter and Aimee’s relationship is, at its core, negative for them both, Sutter and Aimee feel right together, at least until they get too drunk. Their interactions are cute in a relatable, non-affected way. One amazingly tender and tasteful sex scene is a great mix of lust, awkwardness, humor, and love. It’s a tricky balancing act for the movie to pull, between the positive and negative aspects of their romance, and the movie mostly manages it until the end.

Spoilers, I suppose. Sutter ends up unwittingly getting Amy injured. Her reaction, one of acceptance and too-willing forgiveness, is what awakens him to how much harm he’s done her, and how bad he is for her. It’s all on him to terminate the relationship, and she’s so besotted with him as to have almost no agency of her own. It’s upsetting, though the movie acknowledges how terrible the situation is. But then, after Sutter has had a major personal revelation and resolves to turn his life around, the film ends with the two of them reuniting. It feels like an “off” period on the film, especially since it comes right after a scene which would have made a perfect ending. It almost plays as though Sutter has been “rewarded” for getting his act together with Aimee, which doesn’t play well at all.

The Spectacular Now starts out looking like a typical indie teen dramedy, but it takes itself apart as it burrows into Sutter’s soul, and his motivating philosophy. Near the end, he meets his long-absent father (Kyle Chandler, playing hugely against the paternal typecasting he’s been stuck in), a pathetic picture of what Sutter will become if he continues down this road. The ‘now’ is a nice place to be, but it’s ultimately aimless if it isn’t leading towards something. Sutter’s sense of fun is not the result of a free spirit but of a lack of meaning. This story is a defense of making plans, of having dreams, of picturing a future. The film doesn’t stick its landing, but it gets so much right that I was able to mostly forgive it. It’s funny, it’s sad, and it has a heart so huge it seems fit to burst.