Boy meets girl. Boy: jerk. Girl: redeemer. Boy loses girl, boy struggles. Boy gets girl: transformed. Echhh.
That’s the fundamental formula of a lot of so-called movie romances, but it too can be redeemed, as in one of the year’s best movies, James Ponsoldt’s awe-inspiring, vivid, indelible third feature, the widescreen teen romance “The Spectacular Now.” Simple, direct, candid, authentic, it invites as many adjectives as it does superlatives. And I could fill this page with both.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a drunk. Sutter is seventeen. Gangly and confident, headlong, headstrong and ever-so-wrong, face erratically pimpled, an epic bullshitter, he carries himself with charm and ease and a bit of a buzz on. His opening narration, in the form of a swear-studded college entrance essay on how his life’s gone so wrong, is so funny it’s sad. This façade, this cockiness, cannot hold.
Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) the quiet girl, reading manga novels in her room to distance herself from her angry mother, in her own world, her economic circumstances more straitened than Sutter’s. Woodley’s line readings are tender and wry and shy: it’s movie-star rich but ever so forthright. She’s good at slow burns, body language like Aimee angling her sneakers and smiling with her cat eyes before she smiles with her smile.
It’s a coming-of-age-slash-first-love story, with beguiling leads, a frank, bittersweet script (by “500 Days Of Summer”’s Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, adapting Tim Tharp’s young adult novel), a lived-in, rustic setting (the outskirts of Athens, Georgia), an intense awareness of class difference and a mood that’s all its own. Did I say “direct”? Did I say “unaffected”? I’ve seen this film three times since its Sundance 2012 debut, and its effortlessness, its straightforwardness, even in moments we’ve seen rehearsed in movies dozens of times before, even in instants we’ve felt (or wish we had felt) in our own lives, is never less than beguiling.
It’s a more societally aware John Hughes movie, in a way, one he never lived to make. A crisis will come when Sutter overreacts: he is not ready to be loved and he is certainly not ready to be loved so fully and unaccountably, so without want of reciprocation. Strong emotions sweep through the entire film.
Ponsoldt isn’t romanticizing a thing, although his perfectly measured moment of his young couple’s first headlong flirtation that contains a kiss is an exquisitely calibrated thing, a long talk, a long take, full of teasing exchanges and cheek-flushing bravado, captured with bravura directness. The low of late summer crickets accompanies them until it doesn’t, and she says, “I don’t have any ex-boyfriends.” (The camera, which had been moving forward, moves back toward them, cocking to one side ever so slightly: gravity gives.) As in every scene they’re in, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are, well, awesome. The casting: maybe that’s it. Without those two, with their preternatural screen grace, and a fine supporting cast, “The Spectacular Now” wouldn’t be so rich with the sensations of the emotions and mistakes of being a teenager.
In a note accompanying a clip of this scene, Ponsoldt (also a skilled interviewer in Q&As for Filmmaker magazine) wrote something that demonstrates how aware he is of the delicacy of his filmmaking: “This is one of my favorite scenes. I always knew I wanted to film it in one long, continuous, unedited take, walking and talking with Aimee and Sutter, feeling like we, the audience, are part of a natural conversation that ebbs and flows from goofy and awkward to serious to emotional to flirtatious and nervous to a first kiss. I wanted the scene to feel as natural as life. Of course, it meant that the burden was on Shailene and Miles to nail the scene (in a long take, everything has to come together perfectly—or else the shot is useless), and our camera operator had to backpedal for five minutes on a muddy, slippery path. What Shailene and Miles ultimately did in this scene is so casual and unguarded and spontaneous that some people think the scene was improvised. It wasn’t. Shailene and Miles are just that great as actors—so present, so connected to their roles, and so willing to embrace whatever happens in the moment. To put it simply, here’s why this scene is one of my favorites: it actually feels like two people falling for each other. I’ve seen this scene over a thousand times and I still get chills when Miles and Shailene kiss.”
He knows what he’s got, and he’s got another such scene: the irresolution of the ending is true to fairytale and truer to life. It contains another exquisite shot, one of Shailene Woodley’s face, with an intelligent, quizzical, confounded expression. It’s how Aimee looks at Sutter when Sutter’s been no good, but he could be good if he were to be loved. Love is two people. Love is a movie about two people.
“The Spectacular Now” opens Friday, August 9, at Landmark Century. The trailer below gives away a boatload of the plot. Plus: a clip drawn from the extended take first kiss scene, which offers a hint of the movie’s essence.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.