“What an affecting film this is. It respects its characters and doesn’t use them for its own shabby purposes. How deeply we care about them. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are so there. Being young is a solemn business when you really care about someone. Teller has a touch of John Cusack in his ‘Say Anything’ period. Woodley is beautiful in a real person sort of way, studying him with concern, and then that warm smile. We have gone through senior year with these two. We have known them. We have been them.”
These words were written by the late great Roger Ebert as part of his Sundance coverage this past January. They’ve already been published on RogerEbert.com, and will hopefully be released in print when “The Spectacular Now” opens in Chicago theaters on August 9th. I first read this achingly personal review when I attended Ebertfest this past April, where it screened with star Shailene Woodley and director James Ponsoldt on hand for a Q&A. I was fortunate enough to have a lively chat with Mr. Ponsoldt when he attended the Chicago Critics Film Festival a couple weeks prior, and told him about how much I enjoyed interviewing his leading man, Miles Teller, about his film debut, “Rabbit Hole.” The range of turbulent emotions Teller was able to convey in prolonged takes (while acting opposite the formidable Nicole Kidman) caused me to single him out as an actor of great promise.
To say that Teller fulfills that promise in Ponsoldt’s film would be putting it lightly. His take on Sutter, the high school slacker-turned-lovestruck boyfriend, is unlike any teenager I’ve seen on film in recent memory. He certainly has a dash of Cusackian charisma, but his easygoing charm masks a great deal of vulnerability and uncertainty. Some critics have argued that Sutter’s unresolved feelings regarding his father provide too easy an explanation for his inner demons, but those naysayers have clearly missed the point. Just as his budding love, Aimee (Woodley), voices her belief that “there is more to a person than just one thing,” Sutter must discover that his past is not the only factor guiding his destiny. Living in the now doesn’t necessarily require denial of one’s future.
As for Woodley, I’ll freely admit that I didn’t jump on the critical bandwagon that whined about her failure to receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Alexander Payne’s fine yet overrated “The Descendants.” I felt she was strong but a trifle mannered. Not so in “The Spectacular Now,” where she raises the bar for cinematic cuteness about 10,000 notches. This isn’t the sort of “cute” that sticks to the roof of your mouth. Woodley infuses Aimee with complete conviction. She isn’t a damsel waiting around to be saved or a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose sole interest is to save her man. She’s a sweet girl perfectly content in not having many friends—let alone a boyfriend—until she finds the person who she chooses to have her romantic and sexual awakening with. In one of her first Sundance interviews, Woodley astutely observed that the film is not a love story between a boy and girl, but a story about a boy who learns to love himself.
It’s easy to see why “Now” caused Ebert to reflect so poignantly on his own past. When a picture is this perceptive and evocative, it transcends all of the boundaries one uses to shield their emotions and cuts right to the heart. If you’ve ever fallen in love with someone so deeply and completely that it motivated you to become a better person, then you’ll know exactly how Sutter feels when he looks into Aimee’s eyes. Ponsoldt wisely allows the most crucial scenes in the picture to hinge entirely on the expressions of Teller and Woodley, and they tell us everything we need to know. The script was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote “(500) Days of Summer.” Not surprisingly, this is the most captivating American film about young love since “(500) Days of Summer.” It’s also one of the very best films of the year. To skip it would be to miss one of the only films actually worth seeing in a theater this summer. See it with someone you love.