This review has been republished from our coverage of LAFF.
It’s becoming more and more apparent that coming-of-age films have been reaching something of a renaissance period lately, with each consecutive year offering up at least one genuinely great entry in the genre. Last year we had the affectionately told The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and this year we’ve received multiple gems to look out for. One of them, The Spectacular Now, happens to be not only the best of this quality bunch of coming-of-age films, but also one of the best films of the year.
The Spectacular Now tells the story of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller in what will hopefully become a breakout performance), a party-animal who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend and hopes to win her back. Along the way, however, he starts to connect with one of the more bookish and mature girls in his school, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), which sparks not only a romance, but a path to maturation that starts to both enlighten and weigh on Sutter’s soul.
Like many of the best coming-of-age films, because the material is very familiar, the key to The Spectacular Now‘s success is in its insight, empathy, and fantastic performances for all of the characters involved. Teller is wonderful as Sutter, bringing a charisma that makes it easy to see why he’s the life of every party, while also always acknowledging what can make that behavior so reprehensible. Throughout the film Teller gives you a reason to care, imbuing Sutter with a fully-rounded emotional complexity. Woodley, meanwhile, manages to give a character that could’ve been problematic a believable sweetness that might actually be more important than Teller’s performance.
Together, the two have a rich, sweet chemistry. Director James Ponsoldt (best remembered for the criminally overlooked Smashed) gives their scenes a wonderful intimacy that would make Richard Linklater proud, with some surprisingly long takes during conversations and an easygoing comradery between the two that’s rife with details both charmingly small and dramatically major.
The rest of the cast–which includes Brie Larson, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler, and Jennifer Jason Leigh–manages to give even the “throwaway” characters a surplus of personality and pathos. Most notably, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter’s older sister has one very intimate scene that manages to depict a surplus of history and detail to her relationship with her family all in the span of one scene. Everything about The Spectacular Now‘s “world” feels authentic, lived-in, and lovingly crafted by Ponsoldt and co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.
It is this penchant for tender details that gives everything weight, allowing The Spectacular Now to transition from romance to heavy drama smoothly and effectively. The film’s final act feels earned and doesn’t let the audience off too easily, refusing to make its resolution too tidy while still leaving us in a hopeful mood.
That being said, those looking for a radical, original take on the formula won’t get much satisfaction. The Spectacular Now doesn’t offer much that is all that new or revolutionary, but it’s so excellently executed and richly drawn that its easy to get wrapped up in both its infectious charm and its deeply resonating drama. It’s everything a good coming-of-age story should be.