by Tony Dayoub
"Have you turned her into a lush yet?" That's the pertinent question Cassidy (Brie Larson) asks her ex-boyfriend, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) in James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now. Cassidy's concern belies the fact that she's referring to Sutter's new girlfriend, Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley). Is she trying to protect the naïve Aimee from the perhaps alcoholic Sutter's charming sort of peer pressure? Is Cassidy warning Sutter not to lose his new love the way he lost her, by refusing to look past the present? Or is she mindful of her own unresolved post-breakup feelings over Sutter's inability to simply subsist without an oversized plastic cup full of spiked soft drink in hand to sweeten the day? This unpretentious but loaded line of dialogue is representative of the kind of complexity that makes The Spectacular Now feel like a teen romance with an old soul.
Our first impression of Sutter—writing about his breakup for his college essay while sipping a beer—deceptively characterizes him as a cynical slacker in the mold of other cinematic class clowns like Fast Times at Ridgemont High's resident burnout Spicoli. The link is intentional; latch-key Sutter's overworked mom is played by that film's Jennifer Jason Leigh. But The Spectacular Now's tighter focus on Sutter as opposed to Fast Times cross-section of high schoolers allows us to dive deep into his psyche and recognize the wounded child hidden behind the freewheeling party animal. Indeed, for much of its early going, The Spectacular Now depicts Sutter as the kind of cutup one alternately hated and envied in high school, always quick with a one-liner, harmlessly seductive to girls, seemingly impervious to any form of disciplinary action... a walking personification of fun.
But there's more to Sutter than he lets on. Cassidy's new boyfriend, a star football player and class president, confesses his feelings of insecurity stemming from her constant recollections of Sutter's escapades. Defeated, he admits that Sutter is more fun than he could ever hope to be. "I have fun, but you get things done," Sutter responds, his own admission that he lost Cassidy to the better person. It's also the first indication that Sutter realizes he can't sustain the carefree, live-in-the-moment attitude he pretends is serving him so well.
Rather than the typical Sutter and Aimee meet cute scenes, followed by predictable demonstrations of how she will save him from wasting his life, the opposite happens. Aimee, out delivering papers at dawn for her mom, discovers Sutter sprawled out on an unfamiliar lawn after passing out the night before. Perhaps because of her own complicated troubles with her parents, she finds the boy's addiction a minor concern and indeed a contributing factor to his seductiveness. Sutter needs the innocent Aimee to look up to him, to help him through school, to provide the company he can't get from his workaholic mom, absent father (Kyle Chandler) or the guarded sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who's moved to an upscale suburbia and decided to never look back. And Aimee needs Sutter's cocky empowerment to rub off on her in order to stand up to her overly dependent mother. That's what makes The Spectacular Now so unconventional. Sutter and Aimee's relationship is equal parts romantic and codependent.
One of the more frustrating aspects of The Spectacular Now is that we never do find out as much about Aimee's home life as we do about Sutter's. We find out why her dad isn't in her life way before we find out why Sutter's isn't, and it informs their relationship, certainly. But the question concerning what exactly the deal is with Aimee's mom is ignored. It's a curious elision because so much of The Spectacular Now feels like Aimee's story as much as Sutter's. Or it might just be that the warmth of Woodley's performance, the glow of her unmade-up face, Aimee's sober self-assuredness in contrast to Sutter's practiced cool makes The Spectacular Now feel just a bit unbalanced. You want to know why Aimee is attracted to the self-hating Sutter when she seems to have it so together in most respects.
As their relationship progresses, it soon becomes apparent that Cassidy was right to have voiced her concern for Aimee, whatever her true motivation might be. Before long, Aimee is drinking as hard and as often as Sutter. Sutter's prom night gift to Aimee isn't a corsage or some other token of affection. It's a flask. Things aren't headed anywhere good for the couple. It takes a fateful meeting between Sutter and a person he looked up to for him to realize that something is wrong. There, he hears his own limited philosophy of making the most out of the present reflected back to him. For the first time, the non-committal now doesn't seem as spectacular as it's cracked up to be.