“You’ll always be my favorite ex-boyfriend”
Some of us are lucky—a lot luckier than most. The thing about luck, though, is that it may look nothing like it should. Sometimes luck means having your father leave. Sometimes it’s being an eighteen-year old alcoholic everyone at school loves for epitomizing fun despite ultimately acknowledging you’re a joke. We can’t all hit bottom to pull ourselves back up because the floor isn’t always forgiving enough to allow us to walk away. When it does—when the collision rocks you awake, scares you to your core, and makes you understand the preciousness of life—the real luck is finding the ability to not hate yourself so much that you can’t open your eyes to the gift of second chances. Life, love, and happiness are about getting back up. And it’s never easy.
Ask Sutter (Miles Teller), the high school senior in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now whose life has always been about just that—the now. At least in his mind it has because we see how important a role the past plays into that present. He never leaves home without a flask of alcohol to pour into the convenience store Big Gulp perpetually attached to his hand, nor the infectious smile and kind heart so many let mask his pain. He knows what he is: a kid with no aspirations for college despite attempting to write an application essay who is also okay with a future at home playing hard and working hard enough. So when things with long-time love Cassidy (Brie Larson) end, he rolls with the punches knowing it never would have last anyway.
(500) Days of Summer scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have adapted Tim Tharp’s novel with a keen sense of teenage angst and the very adult problems they face in today’s world. Whether the aforementioned Sutter coping with a lifetime of hurt preventing him to care about himself or Cassidy’s powerful love for him that she knows he isn’t ready to accept, every character is drawn with dimension beyond superficial stereotype. Even star jock/class president Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) gets his moment to shine by admitting his myriad insecurities and constant fear of folding under the pressure of success. While The Spectacular Now on paper is a run-of-the-mill teenage rom/com with tragedy, remorse, and forgiveness, it’s an emotionally heavy drama depicting the messiness none of us can avoid onscreen.
This pain and suffering hits everyone no matter how optimistic we are. And sometimes the luck to overcome such hardships comes out of the devastating inevitability of our actions. Things are never black and white, especially the fateful meeting between Sutter and wallflower Aimee (Shailene Woodley) thanks to his night of drunk driving and passing out on strangers’ lawns. Both their lives are indelibly changed in that moment for the better—there is no question about it whether they live happily ever after or not. If not for her waking him up at six in the morning he may never have found someone he could honestly talk to about the issues kept buried deep inside and she would have probably meekly foregone college, letting her mother hold her hostage by guilt.
They are good for each other at love’s basest level even though everyone else—including them—know it can only end in tears. Both their best friends fear the worst: Aimee’s unavoidable hurt once he lets her down. But what no one else can understand is how they feel for one another right now, in this notion of the present Sutter so yearns to bottle. To see them in one of the most authentically delicate sex scenes I can remember is to see hope, love, and trust. Juxtaposing that instant of pure connectivity with the vitriol he spews in the aftermath of discovering who his father really is—who he’s on the fast track to becoming—is to see the complexities of the human psyche and our constant inability to know our own worth.
Woodley finds an intense innocence and empathy that I honestly was not expecting after only having seen her rebelliously damaged teen from The Descendants. She gives herself fully to Sutter once he opens up to her like he couldn’t with Cassidy, but it’s never naïve or childish. She has the perfect balance of independence and co-dependence to not give up on her own dreams for this boy, but to instead invite him into them. It’s a brilliant contrast to Larson’s heartbreaking ex-girlfriend who found she was leaving her identity trapped beneath the strength of hers and Sutter’s bond. The tears she sheds upon this realization aren’t because either of them failed in the relationship, but because she knows she’d be failing herself if she stayed. And the saddest part is that he knows it too.
What can Sutter do but push those he loves away? He’s done it his whole life, finding friends and acquaintances to use as projects his gregarious demeanor can infect so he never has to “fix” himself. That’s his mother’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) strong heart trying to over-compensate for the crippling sense of inadequacy inherited from his father (Kyle Chandler in a wholly captivating transformation against usual type). Teller moves between the Jekyll and Hyde of his tumultuous emotions with deft control, merging his fun loving character from Footloose with the remorseful soul-searcher of Rabbit Hole.
Ponsoldt et al don’t need a hugely contrived grand revelation to come out of their jarring depiction of rock bottom because Teller’s performance says so much more in his little moments with boss (Bob Odenkirk), teacher (Andre Royo), and sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) than clichéd circumstances ever could. His Sutter is the new face of teenage angst and pain; the film proving a resonate depiction of how adolescence is nowhere near as idyllically simplistic as we’d like to believe.
[1-3] Shailene Woodley stars as Aimee Finicky and Miles Teller stars as Sutter Keely in A24’s The Spectacular Now (2013)