No, "The Spectacular Now" was not directed by John Hughes

Nov 11, 2013

One of the great perks of being a film critic is being able to call attention to terrific movies that most people will never hear about. These are the pictures that aren't advertised every ten minutes on TV or hyped to the heavens a full year before they're going to be in theaters. An excellent example would be The Spectacular Now, director James Ponsoldt's outstanding adaptation of the popular novel by Tim Tharp.

Although the movie earned glowing reviews when it opened in August, it got lost in the late summer stampede and didn't find the audience it deserved. It's getting a second chance this week at the Riviera Theatre in Three Rivers and, if you want to see one of the most compelling love stories in a long time, you shouldn't miss it. 

Had it been made 25 years ago, The Spectacular Now might have been directed by John Hughes and starred Robert Downey Jr. and Molly Ringwald. But it probably wouldn't have been nearly as powerful as this version, which stars Miles Teller -- the scene-stealing actor from Rabbit Hole and director Craig Brewer's remake of Footloose -- and Shailene Woodley, who won a Golden Globe nomination as George Clooney's defiant daughter in The Descendants.

While Teller's character Sutter Keely is the focal point of the story, it's Woodley's Aimee Finecky that gives the movie its poignant power. Woodley and Teller's superb performances earned them a special jury award for acting at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

I know the story sounds like one of those old "ABC Afterschool Specials," but stick with me. The Spectacular Now details Sutter's final days of high school, which he gets through with the help of a devil-may-care attitude and a carefully concealed flask full of alcohol. Although Sutter is popular, he can feel the world around him is starting to change. His glamorous girlfriend has dumped him. His relationship with his mom is getting increasingly prickly. And there's a feeling in the air that the same guy whose jokes have always kept everyone in stitches is beginning to turn into the kind of guy everyone laughs at once his back is turned.

Sutter and Aimee first become acquainted when she finds him passed out on her front lawn in the early hours of the morning. Instead of being disgusted, Aimee is sympathetic. An unexpected friendship develops over time, which eventually evolves into a romance. The primary problem they face is one that will be familiar to many high-school couples: She is planning for the future and looking to get out of town while he is living for moment and looking for the next party.

Unlike many teen-oriented movies that promise you'll live happily ever after once you get the right date for the prom, The Spectacular Now reminds us that high school is a time of firsts: first kisses, first heartbreaks, first chances to go out on your own. It's also the first time most of us have to step up and handle adult responsibilities, whether it's showing up for a job or accepting the consequences of dangerous decisions.

Director Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber skillfully avoid preachiness and there is never a false moment in Teller or Woodley's acting. The supporting cast, including Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Kyle Chandler, is equally right on the mark.

But the real shock of the movie -- at least for those of us old enough to remember the 1980s -- is the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter's struggling mom, who has tried for years to protect him from some agonizing truths about their family. As always, Jason Leigh cuts straight to the bone, putting an extra jolt in every scene she's in. Many of us will remember she was just as electrifying 30-odd years ago when she played the naive, soon-to-be-heartbroken Stacy in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Times may change, but the challenges of growing up never do.