When you hear that James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from a novel by Tim Tharp, is about a popular high school guy who courts a smart but plain classmate, you might be prompted to say “Here we go again.” After all, it’s a premise that’s been done to death in teen comedies, and you might wonder about the nature of the bet that the fellow’s trying to win by romancing the unsuspecting girl. But it’s a pleasant surprise to learn that there isn’t any bet, and that the interest of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), who’s breaking up with his long-time girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), for Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) is the real thing, which despite the misgivings of her friends blossoms into a full-fledged, though troubled, commitment to each other.
Unfortunately, the initial meeting between the two foreshadows the major problem the two are going to have to confront. She finds him passed out in her front yard after a night of drinking, and it turns out that the glib, gregarious fellow, whose philosophy is simply to live in the moment (thus the title), fuels his days with alcohol, carrying around a silver flask that meets his needs whenever he’s not at a kegger. It’s a primary factor behind Cassidy’s decision to send him packing, and when he and Aimee start going together, he introduces her to booze too.
That points to the fact that while “The Spectacular Now” avoids the pitfall of the typical teen comedy, it doesn’t entirely avoid the temptations of the afterschool special. Sutter is obviously an incipient alcoholic; when his good-natured employer (Bob Odenkirk) tells him he’ll keep him on at the menswear store only if he can promise he won’t come to work with a buzz on, Sutter admits sorrowfully that he can’t. And the issue is taken deeper with the revelation that his long-absent father (Kyle Chandler) is a bedraggled drunk who, when his son and Aimee come to visit him, actually stiffs the kid with a bar tab before unceremoniously sending him on his way. (The genetic component of alcoholism is, of course, something that’s been the subject of considerable research.)
But if the picture has some conventional elements, it treats them with a refreshing lack of didacticism and point-making. Sutter isn’t your ordinary campus figure—he’s well-liked but a silver-tongued underachiever on the verge of failing to graduate—and with Ponsoldt’s help, Teller invests the character with a credible mixture of vulnerability and face-saving bravado. Woodley matches him with a finely-tuned turn as a brainy type genuinely surprised by—and eagerly responsive to—Sutter’s interest, but also aware of the danger in where’s he’s headed. The two are always agreeably natural in their scenes together, but make a particularly strong impression in the sequence with Chandler, and in an earlier one when they go to a dinner party at the home of Sutter’s well-to-do sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Strong support for them comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Sutter’s concerned, loving mother; Odenkirk; and Andre Royo, as a teacher who tries without success to spur Sutter to takes his studies more seriously. Among the younger members of the cast, Dayo Okeniyi is especially winning as Marcus, the school’s star athlete and student body president who’s nevertheless insecure when he starts dating Cassidy and eventually turns to Sutter for advice. The technical credits are solid down the line, with Linda Sena’s production design and Jess Hall’s cinematography nicely capturing the small-town ambience of Athens, Georgia, where the film was shot.
This might not be a spectacular movie, but compared to the stuff Hollywood usually churns out about teenagers, it’s a breath of fresh air.