Film review: The Spectacular Now

posted at 9:31 am on September 1, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Sutter is coasting through his senior year of high school on booze, wisecracks, failing grades, and the loss of his longtime girlfriend Cassidy, who wants a little more from life than Sutter can give. Sutter describes himself as the life of the party, but in reality, he’s becoming a cautionary tale both at school and at home.  When he wakes up lost on the lawn of Aimee, a classmate he barely knows is alive, he tries to take her under his wing. It’s Sutter who needs rescuing; will he let Aimee in, and can he redeem himself?

The Spectacular Now offers an honest coming-of-age experience at the movies, perhaps the first since Liberal Arts, which dealt with growing up at several different stages of life.  This film has some echoes of Say Anything, but without the precious quality of the 1989 film, and without the focus on cliques that other teen coming-of-age films usually provides — like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for instance, which had a similar tone as this film does.  Sutter isn’t exactly Lloyd Dobler, who wanted to really live life.  Sutter thinks of himself that way, but it’s a conceit; he’s really just numbing himself to life in order to escape his own feelings of worthlessness, which nearly bring him to disaster on multiple occasions.

There are no easy answers for Sutter or Aimee, both of whom make mistakes and struggle to come to terms with their relationship, made worse by Sutter’s inability to face himself.  (The Spectacular Now uses a clever framing device for this critical flaw, which is a college entrance submission in which Sutter has to describe his challenges in life.  It changes at several points in the film.)  The course of the relationship isn’t predictable, and neither are Sutter’s relationships with his mother and sister.  The biggest relationship issue Sutter has is with himself, which comes to a point of realization when faced with the potential loss of a job in a men’s clothing store — a very poignant scene, and heartbreaking for the insight Sutter gets when forced to face himself honestly.

The performances are mostly amazing, especially Miles Teller (21 & Over, Rabbit Hole) as Sutter and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”) as Aimee, on whom the film mainly rests.  Jennifer Jason Leigh chips in with a great performance in a critical scene in the end as Sutter’s mom, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead does well as Sutter’s sister Holly.  Brie Larson convincingly plays Cassidy, the ex-girlfriend who turns out to be just a little too smart to stick with Sutter while he’s spinning circles but can’t snap him out of it, either.  Kyle Chandler has a small part as Sutter’s ne’er-do-well dad in a sequence that fills in a lot of gaps for Sutter, and not in a pleasant way.

Even with all of the drama and heartbreaks within The Spectacular Now, it is an uplifting film in the end — a film about redemption, a film about growing up, and a film about love … real love.  It won’t make most year-end Top Ten films lists, but it’s very much a worthwhile experience.  On the 5-point Hot Air scale, The Spectacular Now gets a 5 — if you can find it in the theaters:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The Spectacular Now is in limited release.  I had to look around for it after getting a strong recommendation this week from my great friend Hugh Hewitt, and it was definitely worth the effort to seek it out.  It’s a nice surprise in this summer of mediocrity.

However, The Spectacular Now is rated R for a reason. It has some bad language, but also contains strong sexual content and nearly-constant alcohol use. All of these are presented with blunt honesty and very little sensationalism, so if you take teenagers to see this film, be prepared for an honest discussion of all of them.  The film will go over the heads of younger viewers and is not appropriate for them at all.

Update: John Hanlon was similarly impressed.


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What????!!!!! No comic book heroes? I feel gypped.

Cleombrotus on September 1, 2013 at 9:42 AM

Cleombrotus on September 1, 2013 at 9:42 AM

I know! It does have a couple of conversations about graphic novels, though. ;-)

Ed Morrissey on September 1, 2013 at 9:45 AM

Better call Saul!

Blake on September 1, 2013 at 9:46 AM

For those who didn’t read the whole review, let me encapsulate it for you: Chick Flick

Wino on September 1, 2013 at 9:48 AM

I’ll try to find it on Redbox. It probably won’t make it to my local theater.

22044 on September 1, 2013 at 9:48 AM

High school students do not act and sound like this. So unrealistic.

bluegill on September 1, 2013 at 9:49 AM

I’ve really wanted to see this, but I think it’s still only playing at the River Oaks 3 in the H-town area. That’s 45 minutes away. I may just have to wait for Blu-ray.

Doughboy on September 1, 2013 at 9:52 AM

However, The Spectacular Now is rated R for a reason. It has some bad language, but also contains strong sexual content and nearly-constant alcohol use.

Dang it, ain’t that always the case? I assume movie-makers think their movies won’t be taken seriously without the hard edge. They so want to be artists, which they will never be.

rickv404 on September 1, 2013 at 9:52 AM

High school students do not act and sound like this. So unrealistic.

bluegill on September 1, 2013 at 9:49 AM

Projecting again I see.

CW on September 1, 2013 at 9:55 AM

High school students do not act and sound like this. So unrealistic.

bluegill on September 1, 2013 at 9:49 AM

Projecting again I see.

CW on September 1, 2013 at 9:55 AM

He obviously wasn’t one of the outsiders in HS. The characters here definitely are.

clear ether

eon

eon on September 1, 2013 at 10:01 AM

Looks pretty good. I’ll check it out. Good review Ed.

WhatSlushfund on September 1, 2013 at 10:01 AM

Wino on September 1, 2013 at 9:48 AM

I dunno. Sounds pretty insightful to me.

Cleombrotus on September 1, 2013 at 10:07 AM

He obviously wasn’t one of the outsiders in HS. The characters here definitely are.

eon on September 1, 2013 at 10:01 AM

Yeah, we always get the portrayal of outsiders from these modern Hollywood movies. Why should we care about them?

rickv404 on September 1, 2013 at 10:08 AM

The only question is: would today’s teens see it as being about them or merely a story about some film characters?

Cleombrotus on September 1, 2013 at 10:09 AM

The only question is: would today’s teens see it as being about them or merely a story about some film characters?

Cleombrotus on September 1, 2013 at 10:09 AM

Some would. Some wouldn’t.

CW on September 1, 2013 at 10:16 AM

Oh boy, we OBviously don’t watch some of the same movies. Geez.

msupertas on September 1, 2013 at 10:22 AM

Even with all of the drama and heartbreaks within The Spectacular Now, it is an uplifting film

I dunno. Sounds pretty insightful to me.

Cleombrotus on September 1, 2013 at 10:07 AM

Any film review that has drama, heartbreaks, and uplifting in the body, especially when they’re all in the same sentence, is a chick flick.

Wino on September 1, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Wino on September 1, 2013 at 10:31 AM

You got me there.

Yeah, it’s that uplifting that clinches it, I guess. IMO, today’s yutes don’t need uplifting; what they need is smacks ‘em right between the eyes and wakes ‘em up. Uplifting is kind of like going to church these days. Makes you feel good about yourself but seldom changes anything.

Cleombrotus on September 1, 2013 at 10:41 AM

Perks.of.being.a.wallflower>>>>>3times.bette.than>>>Spectacular.now.

Mangofish26 on September 1, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Any film review that has drama, heartbreaks, and uplifting in the body, especially when they’re all in the same sentence, is a chick flick.

Wino on September 1, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Actually, any film that shows a boy or a man getting in touch with his emotions or “feminine” side, so to speak, is a chick flick. And, even a comedy or a war movie, if it does these things, can be a chick flick as well.

TXUS on September 1, 2013 at 10:51 AM

Teenagers: “From all these movies, it looks like it’s perfectly normal & expected for high schoolers like me to have lots of sex, booze it up, and throw f-bombs all the time. Cool!”
Hollywood: “Hey, we don’t define or influence today’s culture, we just reflect it!”
Movie Critics: “…honest coming-of-age experience… uplifting…poignant!” (But, parents, be sure to have an ‘honest discussion’ with your teens about all the bad stuff.)

KS Rex on September 1, 2013 at 11:36 AM

I don’t know about The Spectacular Now, but I had A Pretty “Meh” Twenty Minute Ago.

M240H on September 1, 2013 at 12:09 PM

Oh, this is a real movie?

I thought it was an Onion type thing making fun of Hollywood schmalz.

Dr. ZhivBlago on September 1, 2013 at 12:34 PM

James Ponsoldt, the talented young director of “The Spectacular Now”, will be the director of the Hillary Clinton biopic called “Rodham” due out in time for the 2016 election.

I recently re-watched “The Descendants” and was reminded how good Shailene Woodley was in that movie. She more than held her own with Clooney.

Viator on September 1, 2013 at 12:40 PM

Any film review that has drama, heartbreaks, and uplifting in the body, especially when they’re all in the same sentence, is a chick flick.

Wino on September 1, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Actually, any film that shows a boy or a man getting in touch with his emotions or “feminine” side, so to speak, is a chick flick. And, even a comedy or a war movie, if it does these things, can be a chick flick as well.

TXUS on September 1, 2013 at 10:51 AM

“A film about redemption” doesn’t help much either. Teenage sex-romp meets Oprah – I’ll pass.

whatcat on September 1, 2013 at 12:45 PM

ZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..

john1schn on September 1, 2013 at 3:14 PM

Of course, it comes out in the sequel she’s a vampire from Centauri.

profitsbeard on September 1, 2013 at 6:57 PM

James Ponsoldt, the talented young director of “The Spectacular Now”, will be the director of the Hillary Clinton biopic called “Rodham” due out in time for the 2016 election.

I recently re-watched “The Descendants” and was reminded how good Shailene Woodley was in that movie. She more than held her own with Clooney.

Viator on September 1, 2013 at 12:40 PM

I really liked “The Descendants” too. If folks aren’t boycotting movies with Clooney, I’d recommend it – probably add to a Netflix queue since it’s likely no longer at Redbox.

22044 on September 2, 2013 at 12:49 PM

Teen flick = waste of my time.

When I have teenagers I’ll change my mind but I do not yet so I’ll pass.

Bubba Redneck on September 2, 2013 at 5:52 PM