Hidden Gems: The Spectacular Now
By Kyle Lee
August 18, 2019
The coming of age movie is a favorite genre of mine. I enjoy watching characters at pivotal times in their lives try to learn how to grow, watch how they change and hopefully develop into better people. Sometimes truly great examples of the genre come along, and some of them I’ve covered here in this space before, like Adventureland or Sing Street. Those movies are shining examples of coming of age movies, and I’m adding another to the list now, with James Ponsoldt’s great 2013 movie The Spectacular Now. It contains two of the best characters and performances I’ve seen recently, and is the type of movie I ache to watch again and again.?
Sutter (Miles Teller) is the happy go lucky party boy of his high school, and we open as he informs us about his breakup with Cassidy (Brie Larson). They were always the life of the party, but they’re seniors now and she obviously doesn’t see any future with the party boy, leaving him for the star athlete and class president. Sutter is heartbroken and is one morning awakened by Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who has found Sutter passed out in someone’s front lawn after an all nighter of drinking and driving. Aimee is out early delivering newspapers, and she and Sutter have an instant report with one another. They go to the same school but don’t run in the same circles. She’s a smart, bookish kid, beautiful in a more plain, real world way than the more glamorous Cassidy, but Aimee doesn’t know she’s beautiful and she’s too quiet to be noticed too much. Sutter uses his outgoing charm to shield himself from the pain he feels at his dad having left the family, which he also masks with over indulging in alcohol. Aimee helps tutor Sutter in geometry, and the sparks start to fly immediately. Aimee is not his usual type, and he likes that. Sutter tells his best friend Ricky (Masam Holden) that he’s just trying to help this girl, but Ricky is afraid both that Sutter will hurt this nice girl, and also that he’ll get hurt by her leaving him when she realizes she’s too good for him.
I’m a sucker for a good romance, and the chemistry that Teller and Woodley have with one another is really terrific. And each really elevates their characters in different ways. Teller plays Sutter as the type of guy who is so aggressively charming it’s obvious he’s hiding loneliness beneath it. Obvious to everyone but himself. But he is also so genuinely charming that people go with it. Woodley plays Aimee as a girl not yet comfortable in her body. There’s an extraordinarily beautiful piece of acting during their sex scene, as each nervously disrobes in front of the other. Woodley subtly leaves her arms covering her torso, so as to hide from the attention she’s not used to receiving. And Teller lovingly grabs her hands and pulls them away, letting her know she’s safe and loved. It’s a gorgeous scene, perfect in every way, but the actors are what truly make it shine.?
We’re not really sure where director James Ponsoldt and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are going to take us with the plot, whether it will be the standard “they get together, love each other, break up because of bullshit, and get together again as the music swells and we cut to the credits” take or not. While the movie does trod some familiar ground, it always does so with characters front and center, so that it feels like things happening to these people we care about and not just machinations of the plot.
But going back to Teller and Woodley for a moment, they are real people here. They create characters that live in our minds for much longer than just the length of the runtime (a brisk 95 minutes, by the way). Teller has a scene where Sutter goes to meet his father Tommy (Kyle Chandler) for the first time since he was a little kid, and as Sutter starts to see that his dad is a hard drinking loser of a guy you can see in Teller’s face the little kid just wanting to look up to his dad as a hero and instead being let down by the damaged man-child in front of him. You can also see that Sutter sees all the ways he’s similar to his dad and hates himself for it.
Woodley, through all of this, is there with support and an open heart and warm smile. She is so good for Sutter, if he would let her help him grow. But she’s not pushy. She truly does love him for who he is, not just who he could be. But she loves him while he doesn’t love himself. It’s not a healthy dynamic and one or both of them will eventually pay for it unless things change. But Tommy isn’t all that Sutter has, he has multiple great male role models in his life, like his geometry teacher Mr. Aster (Andre Royo, so good in his few scenes that you want more) and his boss Dan (the great Bob Odenkirk, also so good in a tiny amount of screen time), both of whom would’ve been terrific role models if they’d come along earlier. But Sutter is too set in his hard drinking fuck up ways to let anyone change him. But maybe Aimee could be the one. She’s not going to beg him, she’s going to let him be himself and she’ll be there by his side no matter what. She’s so much more complex and interesting than the type of manic pixie dream girl that too many romantic movies have. Aimee is a fully realized person. Even in that scene in the bar with Sutter’s dad, look at the loving way she touches Sutter’s neck and back, never insisting on her own presence or trying to make him feel or say anything, just always being there for support.
We expect them to break up, but again how it happens is organic because of the characters. We know why Sutter is insulting Aimee, in that moment he hates her for loving him when he doesn’t understand why or how, but we wish he would stop. Maybe he’s bad for her, she didn’t drink before he came along and now she’s got her own monogrammed flask like he does, but what about if she’s good for him? Sutter hasn’t quite figured that out yet. This movie is so affecting because we watch these real people going through these things. It’s easy to fall back into cliché and the usual tropes in this genre, and this movie certainly does it, but in mechanics only. Just watch these actors giving brilliant performances (I didn’t even get to Jennifer Jason Leigh perfectly playing Sutter’s mom, deeply loving but overwhelmed and overworked) and taking us through these characters lives in as beautiful a way as the coming of age genre has ever had. Catch up to this Hidden Gem if you haven’t already.