There is something spectacular about Miles Teller.
Not simply Miles Teller as Sutter Keely in James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now — a part that may as well have been written for him— but Teller as a rising actor with an irresistible, boyish charm and a sensitivity that peeks through his impish smile. Even as the goofy sidekick, Willard, in Craig Brewer's remake of Footloose, Teller displayed a depth that was poised for the right moment to reveal itself.
That moment is now, it seems. In The Spectacular Now, based on the book by Tim Tharp, Teller takes on the role of Sutter Keely, a hail-fellow-well-met and lovable class clown who instantly wins over the audience, and almost as instantly wins over Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a studious wallflower who discovers him passed out on a lawn while she's delivering papers one morning. Sutter, a sweet-talking zen-master of living in the now — as long as the "now" includes taking slugs from a flask, keg parties in the woods, and girls — draws Aimee from her shell, and in turn, the viewer hopes, Aimee will shake him into a sense of purpose.
The two are an unlikely pair, but the playful banter and tender, awkward romance are genuine enough to buoy the relationship — long enough for Sutter's more profound struggles to hit the viewer like multiple punches to the gut. His penchant for drink is nascent alcoholism. His boyish charm is the earliest stage of lifelong suspended adolescence. His playfulness is an unwillingness to face his future and the fact that he might not graduate high school. "I don't see what's so great about being an adult," he tells his geometry teacher, whose class stands between Sutter and graduation. "Are you happy?"
At the root of Sutter's hangups is a failed relationship with his father, a familiar scenario that borders on the trite. But Ponsoldt doesn't devote too much of the film to Sutter's deadbeat dad. More is focused on the aftermath of his father's abandonment, and whether or not Sutter will, as his boss laments, ever "yank [himself] out of neutral." A testament to Ponsoldt's discernment, the ending is not tidy, nor are the lessons here.
Indeed, up-and-coming indie director James Ponsoldt has given us one of the best coming-of-age films of late with The Spectacular Now. In his honest, good-faith treatment of teenage characters, mercifully absent is the pandering, exploitative sexuality of the American Pie teen movies, as are the hackneyed stereotypes of high school jocks, nerds, misfits, and prom queens.
Ponsoldt's teens are authentic, emotional, and rash; smart, witty, and kind. Woodley, refreshingly plain-faced throughout the film, and Teller, who bears real scars on his face from a car accident a few years ago, are as real as one could hope for teenage characters to be. You might feel like you knew them in high school. You might just recognize yourself in them.
The Spectacular Now
Opening Friday, August 23rd
Studio on the Square