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'Spectacular Now': Sundance Does the High School Drama Right

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Jan 25, 2013 | 2:48pm EST

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spectacular now sundance review

Most movies don't understand teenagers.

That doesn't mean they're bad. Dabbling in the word of high school drama is a thankless effort. Whether they're finding conflict in the ups and downs of junior year or the comedy of kids losing ther virginities, more often than not, the characters at the center have to skew away from truth in favor of the movie's point. They become exaggerated reflections of the high school experience rather than an honest portrayal of it.

With The Spectacular Now, which premiered this week at Sundance, director James Ponsoldt restrains himself from amplifying any particular facet of teenage life. The film follows Sutter (Miles Teller) during the final months before graduation. In a college application essay, he catches us up on his life, from a break up to his life as the center of attention. He's a cool kid who loves to party — maybe even too much. That's for Sutter to figure out, as Ponsoldt, directing a script from 500 Days of  Summer writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, never judges his lead, nor does he arbitrarily introduce hurdles designed to push him towards epiphany.

Organically shaking up his comfortable existence is Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a bookish do-gooder who finds Sutter passed out on her lawn one morning. Aimee is Sutter's polar opposite, while complacent in her own right — she's dedicated to school, stuck doing her mother's paper route, and guilt-stricken for even considering going to college. When the two connect, Sutter is ignited by the challenge of drawing Aimee out of stasis. Without realizing it, he opens himself up to that same change.

What could have been an updated She's All That becomes a touching, emotional journey in the hands of Ponsoldt. His characters aren't caricatures — at first glance, Teller's Sutter is the recognizable pompous cool kid capable of kicking back shots and landing the good-looking ladies. But there's motivation for the behavior: Sutter loves being a great friend. He has the right advice for everyone. With enough alcohol in his system, he can drown the darker sides of his personality and live in the "now." A teacher tells him he's "in neatural." His response speaks volumes: "Neutral? I'm in overdrive." With incredible swagger and charm, Teller is downright hypnotic, making it easy to see why no one has ever been able to help him with his own problems.

To counter Teller, Woodley explores a side of her that's in complete opposition to her award-worthy work in The Descendents. There, she was high status and curt. In Spectacular Now, she can barely make eye contact with others. She's fragile, shy and enamored by the fact that a guy like Sutter would even speak to her. When their relationship begins to blossom, it's all at once sweet, silly, and scary.

Unlike last year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a film that weaves every high school problem into one sweeping coming-of-age tale, The Spectacular Now is comfortable in exploring the lower-key issues. Nothing seems wrong in the beginning, and Sutter and Aimee don't face many problems when their friendship first begins. But they're forced to go deeper, turning the movie into a story of raw emotion told with raw style. They confront their families, including Aimee's overbearing mother and Sutter's father, who left when he was only a kid. Kyle Chandler fills the role, delivering a powerful performance that will shock any fans of the actor who are clinging to his lovable days as Coach Taylor.

Spectacular Now understands teenagers because it understands people. It's not a movie about nostalgia, but rather a time that's universally turbulent. Don't mistake the movie as a Freddie Prinze Jr. or Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle. Teller and Woodley may play high school characters, but when Spectacular Now rolls out this summer, their performances will be among the best of the year.

[Photo Credit: A24]

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

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