What do you remember about the first time you had sex?
For the stars of The Spectacular Now, an R-rated coming-of-age drama out today, losing their on-camera virginity was nearly perfect. There were no billowing sheets or dramatic scores to lead them through it. No cheesy lines delivered or strategic soft lighting. The sex portrayed was probably average at best, no mind-blowing orgasms noted. Overall, the sex scene between life of the party Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and inquisitive Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) was entirely awkward, but that’s what made it perfect.
The film centers around Sutter, a charming but self-possessed high school student who is the life of the party and a budding alcoholic and feels invincible with his picture-perfect girlfriend on his arm. But when his second half suddenly breaks up with him, Sutter meets Aimee, a bookish and quirky nice girl who unlike Sutter, doesn’t live in the now, but plans her escape from their sleepy small town.
When these two unlikely characters finally find themselves in mutual lust, their skin-on-skin moment is as uncomfortable and clumsy as real life might mirror. “This is the first sex scene for Miles and Shailene,” James Ponsoldt, the film’s director, told The Daily Beast. “What I told them was this: I want it to feel as awkward and hopeful and anxious and nervous and goofy as probably what it was like a lot of us for the first time.”
And the result was just that. Watching Sutter and Aimee have sex is an odd, voyeuristic experience—so intimate it feels as if you’re spying on a neighbor. Teller says he appreciated the film’s “honest” approach to sex and remembered his own first time: “My first time I was just trying to ... You’re just trying to have what you think is sex, but you don’t really know necessarily what you’re doing.”
Woodley, who will star in Divergent, based off the popular young-adult novel of the same name, has acted in several sex scenes since shooting The Spectacular Now. “The sex scenes in the other films are great or whatever, but the one we did I’m particularly proud of,” she said. “It’s different than any other sex scene we’ve seen in a movie before. It’s real, and Miles is such a gentleman. I was topless, but you really don’t see that in the film. He took care of me as far as making sure I was comfortable. James created a very safe environment. There were only a few other people in the room.”
Ponsoldt wanted to ensure the teen sex in his film was neither glorified nor tame. “So many sex scenes are depicted from a hypermasculine view, where the women aren’t allowed to enjoy themselves, where it’s a male fantasy and the women are totally submissive,” Ponsoldt said. “I wanted it to feel real, but not exploitative. I wanted the moment of most intimacy to be the moment when these characters really see each other and respect each other.”
Yet this type of honest storytelling doesn’t exist in the recent history of Hollywood blockbusters, according to the director. John Hughes did it when he created The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but according to Ponsoldt studios cling to moneymaking stereotypes. The classic “teen movie” in America is something not necessarily worthy of an audience’s respect, he says. “It suggests a kind of adolescent immature value system. The Spectacular Now was a movie that was hard to get made—it’s an R-rated drama with teenagers,” he said. “My hope is other people will feel incentivized to make movies about teenagers where it dignifies and takes their lives seriously. And I hope young people can see this movie and see themselves in these characters.”
“I wanted it to feel real but not exploitative.”
Upon first glance, the character of Sutter is the quintessential douche bag—the popular kid who’s always drunk, the kid who never misses a party but rarely makes a passing grade, the kid who prefers idolizing his absent father instead of caring for his compassionate mother. “He’s kind of a scumbag,” said Ponsoldt. “It’s a toxic, screwed-up depiction of masculinity,” he added.
“Pick a studio comedy that’s opening this summer. There’s a good chance that the plot is, he’s 45, but he parties like he’s 20. All the parts for women are awful, and chauvinistic and they have to play a shrew. It’s like really? This is the best we can do? It’s a god-awful role model.”
Teller, who often plays the party animal, says, “For the first 20 pages of the script, I felt like I had read this before. I get this guy.” But a chance meeting involving a hungover Sutter passing out and waking up on Aimee’s lawn begins to transform his character’s predictable ways. “You get to see these characters and realize that they are not how they are painted in the first act. The movie shifts about halfway,” Teller said.
But as Ponsoldt is quick to point out, this isn’t a cautionary tale. No one is wagging fingers or offering moral advice at the expense of these characters’ relationships. No one gets punished in an “easy and convenient way,” and no one, not even Sutter, is saved by Aimee’s sincerity and patience. “It’s not a healthy relationship, it’s co-dependent, it’s toxic,” he said. “And Sutter has self-modeled himself after this idea with his absent father figure.”
That father figure, played by Kyle Chandler, is also a drunk and cares more about himself and his latest girlfriend than about his own son. When Sutter finally goes to see his father after all these years of mythologizing him from afar, his expectations of their encounter versus the reality is crushing. “It’s basically like meeting God and realizing God’s a shit head,” Ponsoldt says. “It’s like finding out that your God is an asshole and he does not love you.”
Sutter and Aimee are immature, lonely, and stubborn, all of which keeps their relationship from really flourishing. But the actors themselves have an obvious chemistry. During our interview, the pair sat on a couch side by side, taking turns playfully harassing each other. At one point, Woodley yelled, “RAWR!” and jumped on Teller’s lap (“Sorry, I’m trying to scare his hiccups away,” she said). And halfway through our conversation, Teller started tickling Woodley’s toes. When the subject of dancing came up, Teller stood up from his seat and walked to the center of the room, showcasing his favorite dance moves. “I’m really into the running man right now,” he said.
Still, the conversation kept coming back to sex. When asked what Aimee sees in Sutter, Woodley responded immediately: “Sutter just has the best nipples in the world. They’re just perfect.” Then she whispers: “And he’s got a big dick.”