Movies dealing with life as a teenager tend to focus on cool kids with the perfect life or uncool youths who climb out of a life of despair. "The Spectacular Now" is a bridge between the two its the cool kid who must face the realities of growing up.
It's as if Ferris Bueller had to live in the real world where being the life of the party is really just masking the pain of a failed life.
Sutter (Miles Teller) has spent his life living for the moment. He's never worried about relationships, responsibilities or his future. When he begins to look beyond that myopic approach to life, he learns that not all problems can be laughed or drunk away. The harsh reality is that Sutter's not even old enough to drink, but he's already finessed his way into being an alcoholic.
His awakening starts when he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a teen who has lived her life trying to be the perfect daughter and student. The pair connect because both are emotional addicts looking for a quick fix.
Director James Ponsoldt doesn't allow for anything to happen quickly. Sutter slowly uncovers the truth about himself. It's often a painful and brutal understanding, but such is life. It helps that the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber based on the novel by Tim Tharp paints such a truthful portrait of what it can mean to be a teen.
Part of the pain comes from a lack of fathers in the teens' lives. Aimee is dealing with the death of her father, the pain magnified by the kind of addiction that took his life that she's beginning to embrace. Sutter's emotional injuries are the work of a father played with superb skill by Kyle Chandler who abandoned him.
There's a realism to the way Ponsoldt lets the story unfold, from the lack of make-up on Woodley to conversations that come across as very natural. There's only one scene the film's lone action moment that feels like a gimmick to move the story along. Otherwise, Ponsoldt has created a coming-of-age movie that won't leave you rolling your eyes.
The film's biggest problem will be finding an audience. It's a powerful look at the pains of being a teen, but it isn't the kind of entertainment that tends to lure young audiences. And, because it focuses on high school-age students, it won't be an automatic selection for an older audience. Either age group should put aside concerns. This movie delivers a compelling look at life, told through first-rate performances.
"The Spectacular Now," rated R for language, drinking, brief nudity. Stars Miles Teller, Shallene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Running time: 95 minutes. Grade: B. Opens Wednesday.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.