Adolescence has a way of magnifying the impact of everything. It's easy to feel like there's never been anything before this period or anything after it. At least that's the case with Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the 18-year old protagonist of James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now. The film derives its title from Sutter's worldview -- he always makes a point of trying to "live in the now," goofing around whenever the opportunity presents itself, and even when it doesn't. The problem with the present is that it's a bounded time frame, and choosing to focus on it is almost like going in circles. And that's where Sutter finds himself during his senior year of high school, stuck in place while everyone around him is moving forward.
After a night of aimless partying, Sutter ends up passed out on the lawn of Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a meek girl who goes to his school. Although he wasn't even previously aware of Aimee's existence, and his big, fun-loving personality stands in direct contrast with hers, the two form an instant and unlikely bond. It's Teller and Woodley's film, and their performances play off each other well, selling the chemistry between Sutter and Aimee. Woodley in particular is revelatory -- Aimee's full of inhibitions and nervous energy, and Woodley exhibits that with every timid laugh and unfinished sentence. The dialogue seems improvised at times, loaded with small asides and characters stumbling over each other in a naturalistic way that feels more like real human conversation. Sutter and Aimee's love story is honest and earnest, but also colored by the individual troubles that exist within their lives. When the two come together, it's like two chemicals mixing, and their relationship is the catalyst that drives them to take action and change the way that they live their lives. As much as Sutter wants to approach the world with no plan whatsoever, his feelings for Aimee develop, forcing him to realize he can't be so blase about everything.
Ponsoldt's directorial style tends to be very raw and low-key, as seen in debut film, Smashed. Characters have wrinkles and bags under their eyes, wear little-to-no makeup, and sport normal clothes. The Spectacular Now continues this trend, but there's a bit more of an impressionistic tone to this one, feeling like it exists out of time and place. It's the type of film that aims to overtake you, and when it does near the middle of the film, there's this magic to seeing everything just click. The nostalgic haze, acute observations, and simple beauty weaves with every fiber of your being, and you're as stuck in the moment as the protagonists are.
But like all of the fleeting emotions that come with adolescence, that feeling leaves just as soon as it comes. Overall, the film feels a bit lopsided, eventually venturing into a subplot about Sutter's estranged father (Kyle Chandler) that produces mixed results. It's a storyline that's in tune with the central theme of the movie -- much like Sutter lives in the now because he's afraid of the future, his father does so because he wants to forget the past -- but it completely throws off the film's rhythm. The story rushes towards some kind of awakening, but it's saved by the fact that it's not about concluding things. Like everybody at this point in their lives, Sutter isn't fully formed yet, and life is only just beginning for him. The road may be filled with uncertainty, but he learns that it may be worth travelling anyway.