Movie review: ‘Spectacular Now’ is satisfying adaptation of teen novel

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTERSeptember 6, 2013 

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Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller play a star-crossed pair who find a way to grow through their turbulent relationship.

  • THE SPECTACULAR NOW

    •••1/2

    Rated: R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality, all involving teens. Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler. Director: James Ponsoldt. Running time: 95 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

“The Spectacular Now” is zesty, funny, sad, and wise beyond its characters’ years. It features the most complex and moving portraits of high school seniors since the final season of TV’s “Friday Night Lights.” The dramatic form is commonplace. The direction, content and performances are wonderful.

The movie tracks an end-of-school romance between a cool guy named Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and a shy girl named Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), with surprises that make it distinctive right from the beginning.

Sutter has won friends and girlfriends as “the life of the party,” whether the party is a class-wide bash or a group of three or four. But there’s something off in his psyche. He lets a prized relationship with the warm, beautiful Cassidy (Brie Larsen) derail because of a ridiculous misunderstanding. He avoids confrontation because he over-prizes good feeling. He’s also addicted to booze.

Aimee, for her part, isn’t merely a “nice” girl. She takes up the household slack for her widowed mother and sullen younger brother while harboring dreams of going to college in distant Philadelphia.

Sutter and Aimee are far more entertaining and intriguing than perfectly matched opposites.

“The Spectacular Now” is a comedy-drama about the ecstasies and risks of imperfect young love. Sutter offers Aimee something she never knew she needed — intimate attention that leads to self-awareness. He also coaxes Aimee into drinking and loosening up, then realizes that his brand of breeziness is bad for her.

Aimee, in turn, sees the core of substance beneath Sutter’s amiability. She goads Sutter into confronting his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about family secrets. Whether Sutter can handle the truth remains an open question.

What makes the movie casually profound is how the characters grow to embody conflicting principles as well as clashing types.

The way director James Ponsoldt and his screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer”), shape Tim Tharp’s novel, the transition from adolescence to young adulthood becomes a series of hurdles that the characters sometimes clear and sometimes topple. Yet there’s nothing melodramatic about the victories and setbacks. Ponsoldt’s gift with actors can’t be separated from his skill as a portraitist. For once, an ambiguous ending is perfect.

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