Review

Review: 'The Spectacular Now' Takes Material That We've Seen (and Lived) Before and Delivers It with a New Perfection

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Aug 02, 2013 | 12:57pm EDT

Credit: A24

What, exactly, can you do with a genre as well worn as the contemporary coming-of-age story? With such a hefty stockpile of high school graduation movies, new entries are bound to entertain apprehension and low expectations. What could The Spectacular Now, the latest feature film about an 18-year-old boy ascending to his existential plateau, offer that no other film of its breed has before?

That's a fair question to ask both before and after watching James Ponsoldt's drama about popular party animal Sutter (Miles Teller) accessing a new side of himself following a breakup with longtime girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). At the dawn of prom and graduation season, Sutter connects with an intellectual introvert named Aimee (Shailene Woodley), clinging desperately to the unconditional kindness with which she emanates. The film's story, derived from the 2008 novel by Tim Tharp, follows Sutter and Aimee as their relationship evolves and invites each party to pioneer emotional experiences. For the shy, unassuming Aimee, this new chapter invites an introduction to confidence. For Sutter, his first tustles with self-reflection... a journey that comes with no dearth of punches to the gut.

Yes, well-worn territory, the both of them: the plight of a teenaged bookworm to find her spark and adventure, the "destiny" of a deluded manchild to anchor down to Earth. It isn't the invention of The Spectacular Now that will grab, keep a hold on, and ultimately engulf you altogether (which it will). It is, contrastingly, the very feeling that you've walked down these roads before.

Credit: A24

Both in life and on the big screen, in fact. You'll appreciate a revisitation to the tropes of "last day of school" movies past with naturalism in grand supply and characters far more interesting and lovable — not always likable, but consistently lovable — than those delivered even by most of the genre's entries. Putting even the troops of Dazed and Confused to shame, The Spectacular Now's characters will astound you when they're sitting in their bedrooms, chatting over math textbooks. And you'll appreciate the attack on your trove of personal experiences in the delicate deconstruction of Sutter and Aimee and their complicated internalities. You'll appreciate these things so much because you've seen them done before, both poorly and expertly, and you've felt them happen before, both as positive experiences and heartbreaking ones. You'll appreciate The Spectacular Now in its honesty — these are the things we know, we've seen, we've felt. Here they are, without a particle of mercy or propaganda.

If you were to assign The Spectacular Now a single victory, it would be in its earnestness. Sutter, a character slumped so deeply in his defense mechanisms, is delivered with more humanity than we've seen in any memorable high school flick. And Aimee, so dangerously close to taking form as a vehicle for Sutter's evolution and nothing beyond that, is an insuperable hero for teen movie female leads and for those inflicted with a tragic scarcity of self love. As movie characters, following in the footsteps of the Dazed and Confuseds and others of the type, Sutter and Aimee are a creative triumph. And as people — full-fledged breathing beings tapping into everything any of us might have felt in our own paths toward (but not quite to) adulthood, they are majestic.

No, The Spectacular Now won't shock you in any of its twists or turns. It doesn't have to. The material it is working with, the material we all know so well, is worth our attention. And it is handled better than it ever has been before.

4.5/5

Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com

More:
'The Spectacular Now' Trailer
'Spectacular Now' Does the High School Drama Right
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