Coming-of-age film ‘The Spectacular Now’ evokes ’80s teen movies

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The film opens with high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) sitting at his computer, typing a response to a college essay prompt that asks him to describe a hardship. He takes a sip of a beer. He begins to ramble on about the downward spiral resulting from his recent breakup with his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson). He describes the once-idyllic vision of his social status (e.g., “I was the life of every party”) in perfect unison with hers and laments the newly perceived deterioration of his life as he knows it. The film closes with Sutter sitting again at his computer, typing a fresh response to the same prompt.

“The Spectacular Now,” directed by James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”), is a coming-of-age story that follows Sutter on his journey to self-discovery during his last few months in high school. Sutter is the quintessential popular high school teenager, exuding confidence and a certain affable charm, social ease and fast-talking sensibility. Adapting Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”) characterize Sutter with a sense of humor and air that feel slightly dated or contrived, at least enough to make Sutter’s “charm” and breeziness irritating to watch at times. The film, however, harps on the shallowness of his exterior by revealing deeper emotional insecurities.

Sutter emphasizes living in the moment and embracing the present (the “now” part of the title). It is a naive and romantic kind of credo that inhibits him from — or rather, allows him to avoid — moving forward or confronting larger issues. He is prompted to reevaluate his life and complacency when he conveniently meets Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). Aimee is sharp, goal-oriented and unaware of her physical beauty. Her biggest downfall is her sincere love for the surprisingly tragic Sutter, who has an “I’m tortured; I don’t deserve you” complex beneath his outward confidence.

It might sound like a cheesy portrait, but the film is more than its basic plot. Although it uses a familiar structure (yes, there’s a prom scene and a graduation scene) with more or less formulaic character models, “The Spectacular Now” takes a refreshing approach to the tried-and-tried-again coming-of-age story without any sugarcoating. As the unlikely relationship between the Aimee and Sutter develops, Sutter’s depth and emotional baggage unravel as he grapples with his relationship with his absent father (Kyle Chandler), a dangerous penchant for alcohol, future plans and an underlying struggle with feelings of deservingness. Against its comedic aspect, such topics make the film exceptionally tender.

Amid the raunchy teen movies that have dominated the past decade, it’s true that this feels much more akin to ’80s films like John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” or Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything” than its contemporaries. It encapsulates sincerity that is rare in coming-of-age films of late. It captures the emotional vulnerability of adolescence and a genuine sweetness in young romance, demonstrated in the palpable chemistry and natural interaction between the characters. The film also provides an accurate image of complicated family dynamics in white middle-class America and their subsequent effect on teens, treating topics like alcoholism, sex and self-love with sensitivity and earnestness.

It is clear that the writers do not mock or condescend the teenaged subjects nor dramatize their angst. Instead, they seem to really understand these characters, recognizing the sincerity and validity behind their emotions and desires. The poignancy that results in such a compassionate depiction negates the film’s potential to be a sappy or melodramatic despite its genre.

Contact Denise Lee at [email protected].