‘The Spectacular Now’ Is the 21st Century’s ‘Say Anything’

This is how I remember it. The trouble with movies about high school is that they’re too often told from a remove, from the viewpoint of adults that look back either with a surplus of nostalgia or an overdose of sleaze. But The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt’s new teen drama (based on Tim Tharp’s novel), gets it exactly, positively right. I was in high school something like two decades ago, but there are scenes, moments, and dialogue in this film that ring so true that it all comes rushing back, a flood of memories and emotions and a little bit of pain.

There are also moments that will recall, for many viewers, its most obvious influence, Say Anything — though it’s worth noting that the film is so engrossing, those parallels didn’t even occur to this viewer until well after it was over (which is saying something, since a second viewing confirms it follows the earlier picture nearly beat for beat). Its protagonist, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), is a tall, goofy charmer in the Lloyd Dobler mold, but with an extra tic: he also spends most of his life inebriated, forever spiking his giant 7-11 fountain drinks with splashes from a hip flask. He’s a partier, so when he wakes up on the lawn of classmate Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) and is told how early it is, he asks her, “Are you just getting back from a party?”

She’s not. She’s doing the paper route that her mother has pawned off on her, and though Sutter finds this lack of consideration infuriating, Aimee thinks nothing of it. That’s because Aimee practices a specific kind of un-jaded teenage kindness — she’s one of those girls who hasn’t yet been hurt enough to not trust people. So from the moment she and Sutter share their first “moment,” the joy of their chemistry is quietly undercut by our dread that he’s gonna be the one to break her.

When they first meet (and for a bit too long after), Sutter is plainly using Aimee to get back at his recently departed girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson). But he’s got a good heart, even when his motives are sketchy, and the two of them fall into the kind of heart-racing, idealized love that only seems to happen when you’re a teenager and the idea of someone being perfect is possible. In conveying that relationship, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer) construct dialogue that is practical and unadorned. These two are not great wits, as most teenagers aren’t — they talk plainly, their lines peppered with an abundance of “awesome”s and “totally”s. It sounds drab, but it’s not; it’s refreshing to hear a movie where the teen protagonists aren’t delivery devices for the witticisms of far-older writers, and the characters seem so genuine that what they’re thinking is more important than what they’re saying.

That openness and honesty is the key to Shailene Woodley’s work, which is so natural and true that it seems less like acting than existing. Teller’s is a different kind of performance — as the class cut-up, he’s “on” (almost) all the time, but Teller finds exactly the right moments to quietly reveal the fear bubbling under all that bravado.

The third act delivers the pain and heartbreak we’ve come to expect in such a story — these things are inevitable, and if anything, there’s a key stretch when it’s almost too tense to watch, so certain are we that something very bad is going to happen any second now. But in those moments, and in the scenes that follow, I found myself thinking about these people and the decisions they have to make with more urgency than any fictional characters I’ve encountered in a very long time. “This is our night,” Sutter says on prom night. “This is the youngest that we’re ever gonna be.” The Spectacular Now is a picture wise enough to both acknowledge the joy of that moment, and to mourn the truth of it.

The Spectacular Now is out today in limited release.