Strip away the makeup and the pretense, turn a few generic high school situations on their ear, and an amazing thing can happen to a teen summer movie. Reality sets in, romance feels awkward and characters make the journey from amusingly familiar to moving.
James Ponsoldt's film "The Spectacular Now," based on the Tim Tharp novel, is a light summer fling that turns serious. Witty, warm and wistful and in just the right proportions, "Spectacular" is the best-acted film of the summer.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) has confidence and charm. We meet him as he's typing out an inappropriately candid college application essay, raving about "the best girlfriend" that he just lost.
Now Sutter is floating and flirting his way past that -- slacking off in school, not making plans, emphasizing "the now." And then he wakes up after an all-night binge to the sight of sweet, innocent Aimee, who's delivering newspapers. She's never had a boyfriend. When he turns on the charm, we instantly worry for her.
Aimee is played by the peerless Shailene Woodley, who turns this light slice-of-high-school-life tale into a movie with weight and consequences.
The lead performances are engaging in all the right ways and they are well-supported by
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter's divorced mom, Elizabeth
Winstead as his older sister and Kyle Chandler as his absent dad.
But the best things about "The Spectacular Now" are the ways it goes deep. Teller never lets us see the wheels turn as Sutter juggles feelings for his ex with his guilty, casual reaction to Aimee. Woodley gives Aimee a glorious guilelessness that make us instantly connect with her.
Ponsoldt gradually but firmly shows us the pitfalls of the philosophy of "living in the now," and what happens if you embrace that credo too literally at a young age.
PLOT After being dumped by his girlfriend, a teenager decides to live for the now, and sets his sights on a sweet newspaper delivery girl.
RATING R (alcohol use, language and some sexuality -- all involving teens)
CAST Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler
BOTTOM LINE With stellar performances, especially by the two leads, this teen romance lives up to its title.