Film review: The Spectacular Now

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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David Strom 8:41 PM on January 30, 2023