"Live in the moment." It's a pat piece of advice we all get at some point in our lives, usually when we're being anxious or obsessive about something we can't control.
But living in the moment can be overrated — especially when everyone else is suddenly looking to the future. That's the predicament addressed in "The Spectacular Now," a pure gem of a teen romance graced with sparkling acting by its young leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as high-school seniors falling awkwardly in love.
Teller, the lesser known of these two young stars, is a revelation as Sutter Keely, a witty, fast-talking, happy-go-lucky guy who oozes a sweet and cocky charm. Always ready with a quip or a glib excuse, he sounds something like a younger Vince Vaughn. (Others may recall John Cusack in his teen-flick days.) Sutter doesn't work too hard in school, but he's OK with that. "This is our time," he says happily at one point. "Live in the now." The spectacular now.
We first meet Sutter just as he's been dumped by his hot girlfriend, Cassidy. As usual, he resorts to self-medicating with alcohol. He ends up passed out on a lawn, and when he wakes, he's looking into Aimee's eyes.
Aimee, brought to life in a stunningly fresh, unaffected performance by Woodley, is everything Sutter isn't. She's studious, thoughtful, hard-working, bashful — definitively NOT a cool kid. So when Sutter starts hanging with her, even asking her to the prom, we're instantly worried. We know he's gonna drop her, and soon.
But this is where the film, directed with a sure and sensitive touch by James Ponsoldt, breaks refreshingly with teen-romance formula. Every time we think Sutter, who's still pining a bit for sexy Cassidy, is going to turn into the cad we think he is, he surprises us.
These little surprises make for wonderful scenes as Sutter and Aimee move slowly toward romance. Try not feeling a tug in your heart when the two first kiss, awkwardly but touchingly. Kudos to writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber for finding just the right tone here — romantic, but not too sweet.
And that kiss leads soon to one of the best scenes in the movie — the sex scene. Normally, virginity-losing scenes in teen films fall into one of two extremes: disastrous (often comically), or gauzy, accompanied by music and a fade-out. Rarely are they simple, real and raw, as the scene is here. You may feel awkward watching, because first sexual experiences ARE awkward — but they can be nice, too. Here, it's both.
Suddenly, though, the story becomes dark. It turns out that Sutter and Aimee do share one thing — lack of a father. Aimee's is dead, but Sutter's is merely absent. The teen blames his frazzled, overworked mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, effective in a small part) for Dad's long-ago departure.
Sutter eventually finds his way to Dad, and that devastating meeting — heartbreakingly rendered, without being overplayed — lends the film a distinctly blacker note. It also gives a chance for the excellent Kyle Chandler, whom we know in noble and likable roles, to flex his muscles in an unlikeable, even pathetic one.
The ending is not pat and tidy, but it does allow a measure of hope. You're rooting for Sutter and Aimee, while perhaps not being totally sure they should be together.
As for actors Teller and Woodley, we definitely want more of them, together or separately. They have, you might say, a Spectacular Future.
"The Spectacular Now," a A24 Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "alcohol use, language and some sexuality - all involving teens." Running time: 95 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.