Sundance Review: The Spectacular Now


Sutter is the life of the party, and the joke of his high school. He is the embodiment of our YOLO teen culture. The one that turns Kendrick Lamar’s lament on teenage alcoholism (“Swimming Pools”) into a party anthem.

With no ambition and an alcohol dependency that’s going from cute (hiding a flask at work) to crippling (his girlfriend broke up with him), what comes after his senior year of high school is uncertain. Sutter lives in the moment, but has a hard time remembering all those great moments through the haze of a hangover. He believes in everyone, yet no one believes in him.

The Spectacular Now is the rare high school drama that is smart, funny, and painfully true in its depiction of alcoholism’s effect on youth and how accepting peers can be of a soon-to-be obstacle in life. The Spectacular Now is Ferris Bueller for a new generation, with a scoop of medicine aside the fun.

The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt
Rating: NR
Country: USA
Release Date: January 18, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)

Sutter Keely is in constant search of a buzz. His relationships aren’t only dependent on drinking, they begin and end by the bottle. So it is with good-natured geek Aimee Finicky, who he meets upon waking on her lawn after a party. The two start up an ambiguous friendship that continually left me with a knot in my stomach. She believes in him so much, yet he’s still eying his ex- and her new football player boyfriend. I expected harm, but screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber bring the same realism and surprise to this adaptation of a novel that they previously attached to (500) Days of Summer.

The Spectacular Now is full of cliches: a father that abandons his kid, a football player that steals a girlfriend, a nerdy girl that never had a boyfriend, etc. Well, high school is full of cliches. It’s in the depiction of The Spectacular Now‘s characters and events that truth and humor is found. Actor Miles Teller has the charm and lines of Feris Bueller, but, in the end of the day, Sutter is just a dumb kid that’s going to get himself killed by drinking and driving. The film’s memorable opening finds Sutter with his head out the window, shouting, as the jovial brass band soundtrack takes a dark turn, heightening to a buzz saw pitch. Nothing happens, thankfully, but The Spectacular Now has a way of always reminding me that these are real people that real things can happen to. This ain’t no John Hughes film.

Party monster Sutter and anime fan Aimee (The Descedents‘ Shailene Woodley is cute as a button in the role) make a pact, after striking up an unlikely romance: each will answer to their mom’s unwillingness to let them live the lives they want. For Aimee, her mom won’t let her go to college. For Sutter, his mom won’t let him see his dad. Watching Sutter and Aimee interact and grow together provides one of the most complex and interesting on-screen relationships to grace a coming-of-age film. Aimee gains confidence, but is not confident enough to admit that Sutter’s self-destructive lifestyle affects her. Sutter becomes bolder and happier, but he isn’t bold enough to put down the bottle after his boss (Bob Odenkirk) asks him to. Every scene is a tug-of-war between feel-good laughs and heart-tugging emotion. Their relationship is real and complex.

Alcoholism is something rarely addressed in teen comedies (even though there is heavy material, the film is funny as hell). The Spectacular Now doesn’t offer any grand transformation or answers for Sutter. He takes on the problems of his father, bringing down the girl he loves. His lust for the party leaves him in a perpetual state of forgetting that there is a morning after. Watching this complicated love affair play out is constantly nerve-wracking, elating, and thrilling. As a viewer, I too want them to be together, elaborating on their on-screen chemistry and delivering more quotable lines. And then, like Sutter, I am reminded that there are consequences in being so short-sighted in my desires.

The Spectacular Now is both one of the most painful and one of the most funny teenage dramas to ever grace the cinema. Like high school, it appears cliche when you are outside of it but feels intensely real when you are still a kid trapped in a classroom. The question isn’t why does Sutter drink all the time. The question is why didn’t we all?