Movie Review: The Spectacular Now- A Sincere and Restrained Portrait of Early Adulthood that Thoughtfully Captures the Reality and Struggles of the Modern Teenage Existence

the-spectacular-now-shailene-woodley-miles-tellerCapturing the authentic blemished portrait of the teenage existence, the lost period between youthful ignorance and the cusp of adulthood experience, has been an elusive topic for film since it’s difficult to delve into the honesty and uncomfortable truths of those developing years. Sometimes film attempts to placate this issue by drifting towards the two extremes, the first being the John Hughes school to exaggerate the effervescence of youth accompanied with mild drama and the opposite end of melodramatically lingering on the tormented awkwardness of this time period. However, not all films in this genre get caught up in the conventions and occasionally break out of the traditional mold of teenage years coming-of-age developments, such as director James Ponsoldt’s latest Sundance gem The Spectacular Now. Adapted from the novel of the same name from Tim Tharp by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the two guys who brought us the equally refreshing romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, there is an undeniable quality in the writing and portrayal of two polar opposite teens who capture the essence, the awkwardness, and the reality of the teenage experience that many films seem to squander. In twisting the familiar convention of the introvert becoming an expressive extrovert The Spectacular Now instead gives us a protagonist who completely hides his damaged ego, inner turmoil, and deep insecurities through an extroverted façade that allows the film to deal with youth troubles in a truthful manner, such as early alcoholism, the effects of divorce, and that sometimes living in the now can not only hinder your own future but also the futures of those around you. Ponsoldt has a subtle cinematic style that really focuses on his actors, much like in his previous actor focused material Smashed, so unfortunately the film casually drifts into casualness at the end of the film that doesn’t necessarily damage the entire film but certainly reveals that it could have been a stronger, far more focused, delivery. Still, The Spectacular Now has graced us this summer as a refreshing portrait on the unexpected occurrences of youth transcending into adulthood, whether they are self-induced or found by mistake, making it a beautifully made, sardonically funny, and compassionately dark film. Ponsoldt’s restrained direction coupled with the poignantly scripted material from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber has come together to create a truly timeless film about the overlooked struggles and unconventional relationships that can develop during our most prominent and impactful years of our lives.

Dealing with some of the darker toned issues from Tim Tharp’s book, such as the growing epidemic of youthful alcoholism and the effects of divorce on the young psyche, were probably the hardest aspects of the original novel that the screenwriting team of Neustadter and Weber had to tackle but they do it with an elegant grace through the fine development of their protagonist Sutter Keely (Miles Teller). Sutter has all the characteristics of an egotistical, invincible, and charm heavy teenager who has decided to put on a confident façade and drinks his deeply felt hurt away after his longtime girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breaks up with him. After a nightly drunken stupor Sutter finds himself passed out on a random lawn where he is awakened by Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a quiet nerdish girl in Sutter’s class, and from there they begin to develop a rather spontaneous friendship and inevitable relationship that changes both of their perceptions, goals, and overall personalities. The script’s foundation for the two leads is impeccably crafted giving all of the intended elements, including Sutter’s fast-talking wit, Aimee’s slow emergence, their unconventional relationship, and the inevitable crash into the walls Sutter has put up to prevent closeness, a pristine honesty that guides both the direction and the phenomenal performances created to convey these two complexly written characters. Just as it was with their debut feature (500) Days of Summer, Neustadter and Weber’s adaptation of The Spectacular Now has a sense of realism towards relationships and towards their characters that possess believable motivations, authentic chemistry, and broad representations for the issues that are presented at the cusp of adulthood. The portrayal of early alcoholism isn’t treated with a sense of puritan judgment but instead takes a restrained evenhanded approach that this is a real issue that casually and unexpectedly progresses without the proper consideration or proper guidance leading to a heartfelt scene between Sutter and his caring boss Dan (Bob Odenkirk) that emotionally captures the problem in its full essence. The Spectacular Now deals with real teens with real teen issues with graceful authenticity ranging from sex, vulnerability versus perceived invincibility, and how being emotionally closed can lead to a damaged self and damaged relationships. Because of this wonderfully thoughtful script with seemingly real characters it only seemed natural that the equally restrained and thoughtful direction from James Ponsoldt would bring out the visual realism needed to compliment the fine writing from Neustadter and Weber.


Director James Ponsoldt has already proven his indie filmmaking skills that slant towards the turbulent and romantic with last year’s sleeper Smashed that featured skilled performances from his two leads Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, which he continues in The Spectacular Now. His cinematic abilities never venture into the more experimental or subjective exploration of his characters, which could have benefited the darker elements of this particular story, but rather takes a restrained backseat to allow his characters to unfold in subtly poetic ways. It’s a rare quality to see a young filmmaker not get caught up in the awe of experimental or ambitious technicality and instead deeply focuses on the story, the characters, and the believability of the performances, which he has done continuously throughout his short career with Off the Black, Smashed, and The Spectacular Now. As this film gets darker, or as it gets harder for the protagonist to hide his deep flaws and insecurities, the tone of the film remains consistent which reverts into a sort of casual direction that could have utilized a tad more technical skill or experimental focus that is seemingly absent from Ponsoldt’s repertoire of filmmaking abilities. However, this minor criticism has nothing to do with the graceful execution that the majority of the picture that handles the spontaneous emotionality of first loves, the poignant drama of adolescence, and the portrayal of a philosophy focused on immediate gratification that collides with the inevitable reality of future potential. Ponsoldt is able to capture a wide variety of distinct scenes that are involved in a majority if not all young adult experiences from the intimacy of first sexual encounters, the awkwardness of revealing more of yourself to another person, the disappointments from parental figures, and the struggles of becoming your own person without any sense of pretentiousness. Everything contained in The Spectacular Now can only be described as real because the foundation of the writing, the careful direction, and the believability of the performances all come together to weave a moving tapestry of young adulthood that never feels forced and always feel familiar. Despite a need for the occasional deviation into a potential subjective experimentation for his protagonist Ponsoldt remains consistent in his direction and focuses on the emotionality of his story told through the beauty and authenticity of his wonderful actors.

Making the teenage years come off as a believable reality, one that resonates with the majority of people who experience the same awkward yet vital years of development, is definitely a challenge but fortunately Ponsoldt’s careful direction and keen selection of actors has greatly benefited his picture for the better. Apparently both the selected leads, with Miles Teller as Sutter and Shailene Woodley as Aimee, didn’t initially get the parts after their first auditions and desperately fought to get these roles, which after seeing their performances can be understood why they wanted them so badly. Miles Teller has the unique ability to shift from fast-talking confidence to damaged vulnerability giving his role as Sutter a refined and careful emotional range that is revealed in all of the right places. It’s refreshing to see Teller give such an exceptional performance after the unfortunate though undeniably charming performance in this year’s lame duck college demographic comedy release 21 & Over. His chemistry with Woodley, both in the intimate and friendly sense, comes off naturally as they both capture the wonderful highs and the challenging lows of any first love relationship giving our involvement in experiencing the film a reason to watch and a connection to hold onto. Woodley surprisingly gives an antithesis performance from her fantastic role in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants where she was a tad unpleasant in her teenage self-involvement but generates an adoring and delicate inward performance with her portrayal of Aimee in The Spectacular Now. They are all accompanied by a great cast of familiar and unfamiliar faces, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Bob Odenkirk, who play their roles with equal confidence and maintain a relevant purpose in the story and the development of these two well written and finely portrayed characters. Without the beautiful realism and confident believability that Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give their characters then we wouldn’t have been able to accept any of the occurrences throughout The Spectacular Now as real when in truth that’s the only description it ends up warranting.


That hard to understand period between the ignorant freedom of adolescence and the haunting responsibility of adulthood that lingers in the mind of every developing teenager is an elusive subject for the medium of film that takes a graceful and realistic touch that isn’t always executed well. On one end we have the last celebratory breath of youthful effervescence from the likes of John Hughes and on the other we have disconnected melodramatic pieces where nothing ever seems palpably real. James Ponsoldt’s latest high school drama The Spectacular Now finds a comfortable place appropriately in between the two extremes, a sort of apropos representation of the in between period that the very characters he is presenting are experiencing themselves where those last moments of the teenage existence begin to erode when the exposure of responsibility, substance abuse, and the inevitability of a future are introduced. The Spectacular Now finds great strength in Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s finely adapted script from novelist Tim Tharp that never shies away from the darker toned elements that face the characters and also in James Ponsoldt’s careful direction where the experiences, beliefs, and conclusions of his characters never seem falsified but undeniably real. It’s rare when a film doesn’t squander any of its finer qualities such as the exceptional acting talent, the poignantly written foundation in the script, or the visual gracefulness that accentuates the believable characters on the screen and this is one of those rare gems that seeks not only to resonate with you emotionally but also inspire you with its beautiful balance of dark themes with an extremely open-ended hopeful ending. The Spectacular Now is one of those memorable portraits of young adulthood that has purpose, insight, and beauty and has the essence of timelessness in its restrained and loving portrait of the inevitable acceptance of a future even when the now seems all too tempting to leave.

Grade: A-

2 Responses to “Movie Review: The Spectacular Now- A Sincere and Restrained Portrait of Early Adulthood that Thoughtfully Captures the Reality and Struggles of the Modern Teenage Existence”
  1. Thomas Gatto says:

    Excellent film essay my friend…so far I haven’t much look because this thing hasn’t been released near me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: