We tend to romanticize "free spirits," but there's a pitfall to such abandon: a lack of commitment that retards growth in social or public spheres. Seizing the day, or what a new dramatic film somewhat ironically calls "The Spectacular Now," is all well and good. It's even great. But at the exclusion of the future, the now can also be fatalistically self-destructive.
By exploring this conundrum, James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" gives weight to teen romance, a genre that's usually lighter (the films of John Hughes) or lightest (the superficially dark-toned silliness of "Twilight" or the frat-ty farce of "American Pie"). Call it a mature film about immature people, tenderly performed by its young leads and skillfully adapted, by "(500) Days of Summer" screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, from Tim Tharp's YA novel.
Miles Teller stars as Sutter Keely, a high-school party guy who gets knocked sideways when his fed-up girlfriend Cassidy dumps him and, seemingly, takes his "friends" with her. Soon thereafter, a hung-over Sutter wakes up on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (rising star Shailene Woodley), who takes pity on him and immediately falls under his hyper-verbal charms.
The virginal Aimee has thus far prioritized education to the exclusion of dating, but Sutter likes her well enough and decides to change all that; she seems to think he's out of her league, but in truth, he probably doesn't deserve her. Though the script never comes right out and says so, Sutter's actions betray that he doesn't -- at least at first -- see a future with Aimee. It's more or less obvious that he's biding his time, toying with affections while holding out hope he'll draw back Cassidy's attentions in the process.
Sutter's lack of academic engagement or plans for the future (he's serious "about not being serious") result from the hard lesson of his parents' divorce and abandonment issues from his absent father (Kyle Chandler). Sutter's mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tries to prevent him from looking up his father, but Sutter won't be dissuaded, leading to an awkward road trip with Aimee riding shotgun.
The Keely men's reunion, played out in a bar, explains a lot and proposes a disturbing possible future for Sutter if he continues, like his father, to "live in the now," with alcohol his only constant companion. (Chandler tops the outstanding supporting cast, which also includes Bob Odenkirk of "Breaking Bad" and Andre Royo of "The Wire.")
Sutter's the kind of boy parents fear will corrupt their daughters (and not without reason). The good-hearted Aimee doesn't turn stupid, but she is susceptible to the excitement of first-blush love and social adventures. They fulfill for each other the usual needs of a high-school relationship (including a date for prom), but also more: They're uniquely in need of what the other has to offer. Wisely, the filmmakers resist putting the relationship into a box of "healthy" or "unhealthy," instead arriving at a somewhat ambiguous note in the film's final cut to black.