‘The Spectacular Now,’ Starring Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller, Is One of Sundance’s Best

Director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, about a popular high school senior whose love affair with a dorky go-getter, played by Shailene Woodley, forces him to confront his hopelessness, is one of the best movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Wilford Harewood

Live in the now. This is the modus vivendi of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a gregarious high-school senior whose infectious, life-of-the-party mentality offsets any shortcomings in the looks department. He is beloved by all and, when he’s holding court with his sexy girlfriend (Brie Larson), feels indestructible.

Sutter’s whole world comes crashing down when his partner-in-crime unexpectedly dumps him, sending the boozy teen on an all-night bender. He’s awakened the following morning—lying face down in a neighbor’s yard—by Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a bookish, sci-fi loving classmate whose name he can’t quite recall. Aimee is a breath of fresh, unsullied air for Sutter; someone who, instead of living in the moment without a care for the future, is working diligently to make her dreams become a reality.

The two soon bond over their overbearing mothers and nonexistent fathers—hers died a few years ago and his has long been out of the picture, and eventually fall for one another. Being with Aimee doesn’t make Miles feel invincible, but it makes him feel like a person of substance. She even convinces him to open up the communication lines with his long-lost father (Kyle Chandler), despite his mother’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and older sister’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) protestations.

As Sutter spends more time with Aimee, he starts to realize that the way he sees himself and the way others see him couldn’t be further apart. His teachers, classmates, and employer view him as a court jester of sorts, someone who’s there to entertain, and nothing more. This convivial mask he wears, along with his omnipresent flask, is obscuring a deep hurt stemming from his father. But with Aimee by his side, there may be hope for him after all … assuming he stays out of his own way.

Last year’s Special Jury Prize winner at Sundance, Smashed, explored the dichotomy between marital codependency and alcohol dependence. Filmmaker James Ponsoldt once again examines the haunting effects of alcoholism in this, his follow-up, which made its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

While the plot of The Spectacular Now, a bildungsroman about an immature teenage fuck-up who is saved by a virtuous young woman, seems incredibly conventional on paper, it all goes off without a hitch. The writing by scribes Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, who previously penned (500) Days of Summer, is far more grounded in reality than the aforementioned tween fantasy, and the performances are uniformly excellent—in particular Teller, who stole every scene he was in in the recent Footloose remake. You never quite manage to get a read on Sutter until the film’s climax, which is a testament to his nuanced performance and the complexity of his character. And Woodley, who was robbed of an Oscar nod for The Descendants, once again elicits commiseration and good will as a wise-beyond-her-years girl who steadily guides an emotionally stunted, broken young man.

The Spectacular Now manages to transcend its teen-drama framework to become one of the most poignant and gratifying films of this year’s Sundance.