The Spectacular Now opens with a male voice-over lamenting a recent breakup. That's the same way (500) Days of Summer—the previous film from screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber—began, but here the narration comes courtesy of high-school senior Sutter (Miles Teller). He's writing a college application essay about overcoming a challenge, and this opening establishes his flip attitude. It's accompanied by a montage of Sutter pounding shots among packs of friends, sometimes poolside: This hard-drinking bro just wants to have fun, and he's down about losing his ex, because, he plaintively says, "We were the life of the party." Given the film's pedigree and setup, you half expect a manic pixie dream girl to come along and school Sutter on being real.
So that Sutter befriends and then falls for off-the-radar Aimee (The Descendants' Shailene Woodley)—a sweet, manga-reading girl who's happily not reduced to school nerd or outcast status by director James Ponsoldt—feels all the more refreshing. Aimee is a perfect foil to suave Sutter, her smiles endearingly goofy and the oiliness of her skin suitably teenaged. As unabashedly sincere as the film itself, it seems she'll unleash Sutter's inner angel.
But The Spectacular Now here again surprises, cementing it as more than just another teen movie. It turns out that first impression of Sutter was wrong. But the character's shoes are tough to fill. Though Teller is an amiable presence, he can't quite match the naturalistic radiance of Woodley, emotionally transparent and exuding the air of abandonment that accompanies first love—unquestioningly embracing Sutter right after a near-catastrophic argument, for example. In fairness, Teller is asked to pull off a feat: project an offhand charisma akin to that of a young John Cusack-cum-Matthew Broderick.
Like (500) Days, The Spectacular Now is ultimately about a boy, in this case one seeking an absent dad. As a result, the women in his life, including his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), tend to fall by the wayside. But if the film's lesson—that Sutter must make peace with his past in order to confront his future—seems a bit pat, well, arriving at a personal understanding of such clichés is part of coming of age.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: The Spectacular Now is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.