For Sutter (Miles Teller), a charming high-school senior and budding alcoholic, the ‘now’ is all that matters. It is where he can live in the moment and be the life of the party. But after a post-breakup bender, he meets shy Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and the pair forms an unlikely bond, as Sutter pines for his ex and searches for an estranged father.
With strong performances from the young cast, which won a special jury award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now dodges cliché to deliver an accessible, powerful and honest coming-of-age story.
It was only January this year that I read Tharp’s 2008 book, after hearing that an adaptation was in the works. And I pretty much fell head-over-heels in love with the book, even while having my reservations about its big screen adaptation.
Now I know, I know. Whenever the word “adaptation” is uttered, it’s a bat-signal for fans to come up with their long list of demands and iron-clad rules for the Director/Script Writer to follow. And then the endless whinging or championing of casting announcements . . . I get it. Us bookish-types get tedious when there’s cross-pollination going on. But I was genuinely curious (and maybe a bit hesitant) for Tharp’s book to become a film – mostly because it’s so not your typical YA novel (dare I say, it’s the ‘anti’ YA?) and so much of its charm lies in protagonist Sutter’s internal voice, that reveals him as an anti-hero even while his outward clownish and chillaxed displays herald him as a king amongst his classmates. It’s a complicated text, to say the least.
I actually went into the movie with two small ‘hesitancies’. The main one being that the movie poster (lovely as it is) makes the film look like a romance. And my second concern was for the ending (and hoping it would remain intact). . . Now, having seen the film, I can say one is handled beautifully, but it’s affect on the other is also a weakness in the end.
Within the first few minutes I had a sudden lightning bolt idea – that Miles Teller was like a young John Cusack (even while ‘The Spectacular Now’ is the antithesis to those 80s teen flicks, and Sutter Keely is like a grittier, and far more interesting counterpoint to Lloyd Dobler). There’s just something about Teller – a charismatic, smart-assed panache – that captured Sutter keenly and within seconds. Where it took Tim Tharp a lengthy opening scene showing Sutter’s potential by rescuing a little kid, Miles Teller has audiences in his corner and on his side from the get-go. And that’s very important for Sutter’s character; because viewers are meant to be as dazzled by his chilled, jokester schtick as his friends and classmates, until we start scraping away the facade later on in the film . . .
But if I thought Miles Teller was a dream cast for Tharp’s Sutter, I was bowled over by Shailene Woodley as Aimee – and what those two bring together.
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley very importantly look like regular teenagers. Woodley spends the film entirely make-up free and in oversized t-shirts, sometimes puffy-eyed and with a mane of hair that she’s always yanking into a messy ponytail.
And when these two are together their chemistry comes more from normality than sparking heat – it’s as though director James Ponsoldt just left a camera rolling and happened to capture the awkward bumbling of these two teens. It’s a little bit glorious. There were so many times when I felt Aimee’s vicarious awkwardness, as cool kid Sutter starts paying her attention and she desperately tries to subdue her geek-streak. And, what few sex scenes there are, benefit from being filmed on the knife-edge of awkward – as the camera remains in close-up, even through spontaneous laughter, condom opening and heavy breathing. It’s a blessedly awkward scene, devoid of Hollywood gloss, but that Ponsoldt doesn’t cut away to billowing curtains is brilliant and refreshing.
But Woodley and Teller’s down-to-earth looks and natural repartee also made glaringly obvious what wasn’t gelling so much in the film. Like Sutter’s girlfriend, Cassidy. Fans will probably be upset that Cassidy is played by the slim Brie Larson, when Sutter in Tharp’s book makes a constant (sometimes uncomfortable) point of calling her his “beautiful, fat girlfriend” all the time. Brie Larson is only a couple of years older than Woodley, but she looks too sophisticated beside Sutter and Aimee’s ‘everyteen’ appearance. And where Woodley and Teller play it beautifully natural (indeed, I often wondered how much of their interactions were scripted) Brie Larson was too “on” – she acted too hard opposite two leads who excelled at being deceptively unaffected.
With Miles Teller doing such a good job of being an average joe fuck-up, it wouldn’t have worked for Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber’s screenplay to stay too true to Tim Tharp’s narrative voice for Sutter. Throughout the book Sutter reels off this New Age thinking theory, like about how; “We’re not the Faster-than-the-Speed-of-Light Generation anymore. We’re not even the Next-New-Thing Generation. We’re the Soon-to-Be-Obsolete Kids.” This is reconciled somewhat by Sutter writing his college application and answering a question about overcoming hardship, and which we get to hear in voiceover. But also what we lose from Tharp’s interiority we gain in Teller’s smart-arse remarks and thinking-on-his-feet bullshit.
Now, for what didn’t work for me: the end.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that the end of Tharp’s book is somewhat ambiguous (I've since discovered, after hearing two friends’ ideas of what happened versus my own) and it’s somewhat bleak. In part, James Ponsoldt’s movie adaptation is about making Tharp’s book more accessible and audience-friendly by injecting some hope and smoothing the rough, dark edges. Where I read the book as being about Sutter hitting rungs on his way to rock-bottom, Ponsoldt’s movie is about giving Sutter ways and means to climb those rungs back out again. So my initial reaction to the film’s ending was a nose-wrinkle . . . but I have since amended my opinion to think; ‘Don’t judge a book by its adaptation’ (that’s not mine, I saw it on a bookshop badge). Tharp and Ponsoldt are discussing a young man’s spiral in very different ways, but that this is a movie about a teenager with a serious drinking problem and convincing happy armour is important in itself. So too is the fact that neither Tharp nor Ponsoldt treat Aimee and Sutter’s story as a romance; for Sutter it’s the kick in the ass he needed, for Aimee it’s something that will hopefully make her stronger.
Immediately after watching ‘The Spectacular Now’ I wasn’t sure how I felt. That I loved Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller was a given, so too director James Ponsoldt’s down-to-earth teen film approach. But the ending felt somewhat cliché (when Tharp’s book is anything but) and it didn’t seem to follow Sutter’s learning curve . . . but then I thought about it some more, and I decided I really wanted to see the film again. It’s definitely one to watch more than once, and a must-see if you haven’t already.