A popular but average boy meets a smart, geeky girl and they fall in love. That was Say Anything, wasn't it? The party-hard guy teaches his uptight classmates how to live for the moment. That one was Ferris Bueller's Day Off. You can find a lot of those eighties teen movie resonances in The Spectacular Now. The movie is based on a 2008 young adult novel (by Tim Tharp, which has been adapted for the screen by (500) Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber), but really, the eighties stuff is just a case of bait and switch. In this case, the switch is a lot more interesting than the bait.
The first encounter between party monster Sutter (Miles Teller) and shy girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley, who played George Clooney's eldest daughter in The Descendants) isn't exactly cute. When Aimee gets up at 5:30 in the morning to start her paper delivery route, she finds Sutter passed out on her lawn. She helps him find his car; he helps her deliver papers and they like each other.
It's no big deal for Sutter to get trashed. In fact, he carries around a super-sized soft drink spiked with liquor from a pocket flask. He drinks at his part-time job at a men's clothing shop. But he's also a charmer, with a happy leer like a junior Robert Mitchum. There are a few worrisome cracks in his cheerful adolescent façade. He's barely passing at school and probably won't get university acceptance. He's just been dumped by his hot girlfriend (Brie Larsen). His nurse mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gets on his back between her double-shifts at the hospital. His dad has been out of the picture for years.
Sutter and Aimee discover some similarities and interesting differences. Both have single mothers and families affected by substance abuse: They're open and affectionate, but Aimee, who reads science fiction, is focused on the future to the point of obsession. Shortly after they first sleep together, she's already making plans for them to move away from the city and play house. Sutter's sort of happier spinning his wheels. He pretends he's just having a fling to do a shy girl a favour. She tutors him in math and he tutors her in drinking and they make a pact to stand up to their overcontrolling mothers.
A turning point comes at a dinner with Sutter's older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) when the question of Sutter's father's whereabouts is raised, and Aimee, whose father is dead, urges him to look up his dad, despite his mother's objections. Sutter decides to make the phone call, and then drive with Aimee to visit his old man. They arrive on a Friday afternoon and dad (Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler) appears – a twitchy, seedily handsome guy – and takes Sutter to visit his buddies at the local bar. He's broke and he's got some conflict with a woman going on. By the end of the afternoon, Sutter recognizes a mirror of himself in 30 years and the experience is crushing, the first of a series of wake-up calls that take a long time to acknowledge.
Some of The Spectacular Now feels conventional (Sutter's mom's emotional speech near the end), and others fuzzy: Is Aimee an angelic dream girl or a co-dependent emotional doormat? The questions, which extend to the slightly ambiguous happy ending, are refreshing. Director James Ponsoldt, who shot The Spectacular Now in his hometown of Athens, Ga., made the similarly themed drama Smashed (2012), starring Winstead as an alcoholic school teacher. He has a great way with revealing different sides of characters who are deceiving themselves, who you want to see do better. By the end of the The Spectacular Now, you're not quite ready to let these characters go. Instead, like director François Truffaut did with his character Antoine Doinel in a series of films, you want to check back with them every few years, to see how how they're getting on.