There are times when James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” which was released in theaters earlier this month, perfectly captures adolescent first love: the tentativeness of it, the confidence it can instill and, most notably, its sweetness and tenderness. Sutter (Miles Teller, “Rabbit Hole”) and Aimee (Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”) are an unlikely pair: he’s without ambition but always the life of the party while she’s academic and grounded. They start up a friendship by chance — when he wakes up on her front lawn one morning after a night of heavy drinking, and she takes him on her paper route to help him find his car – and the characters complement each other, with Sutter’s laid-back charm and wit detaching Aimee from her shyness.
He likes that she’s different, unabashedly smart and ambitious without being pompous. He needs a tutor – his laissez-faire attitude has left him nearly failing his classes – and she’s flattered by the attention. Things quickly change when he takes Aimee to a party and uncomfortably watches several boys hitting on her. She’s oblivious; she tells him that guys don’t look at her that way and can’t see that he is doing just that. When Sutter answers with a kiss, it’s sweet and surprising: a quiet moment that Ponsoldt wisely doesn’t elevate with rising music or showy camera moves. Although he briefly avoids her afterward out of fear, they both handle things with surprising maturity and honesty.
Sutter and Aimee slowly go through the rites of passage of senior year – she gets accepted to college, they go to the prom, she graduates and he participates in the ceremony – but the events themselves take a backseat to their evolving relationship. This is high school and adolescence as it is lived, not the preteen fantasy of it. When they have sex, it’s a discovery for both that’s raw and gentle: they giggle and joke, they awkwardly discuss removing clothing, they communicate and they share secrets. The sex scene is masterfully directed, largely held on the actors’ faces where we can see their vulnerability and depth of emotion.
Sutter and Aimee both have their troubles, and they are tremendously supportive of one another. It’s just unfortunate that their problems are too simplistically detailed. His alcoholism is a result of being abandoned by his father for reasons he doesn’t know. He drones on about living in the present, as if the future doesn’t exist and doesn’t need to, a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps him in this self-destructive cycle. We only get snippets from her about her troubles – her father died years ago, and her mother may have a gambling problem which leaves her overly dependent on Aimee – and they’re all handled offscreen. Sutter’s issues are the film’s focus, and when we meet his father (the excellent Kyle Chandler), we get a glimpse of the loser Sutter could become if he doesn’t start taking things seriously.
This is an adult movie about the transition to adulthood. Ponsoldt’s greatest triumph is in taking this relationship seriously. Although it is full of lazy plot devices – Sutter’s changing college application essay that bookends the film, and Aimee’s unbelievably forgiving nature, which even Woodley’s poise and maturity can’t rationalize – we root for Sutter and Aimee. Whether their relationship has a built-in expiration date is less important than what their time together does for them.