The Spectacular Now
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson
Rated R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality — all involving teens
1 hr. 35 min.

Judging from the previews, you might think that The Spectacular Now is just another coming-of-age comedy in the same vein as that high priestess of all coming-of-age films, 16 Candles.

It’s not. In fact, it’s more raw and honest than most films of this type, and more pensive, with only sporadic moments of comedy. But it does deal with teenhood and sexuality in ways that usually get deflected for the sake of that much-sought-after PG-13 rating.

Instead of making broad assumptions about teenage life, The Spectacular Now chooses to explore a small snapshot taken in a rural Georgia town. No broad assumptions here about what it means to be a teen. Rather, these are individual journeys that just happen to include not only the exploration of teenage partying and sex, but of standing on the edge, in one of life’s transitions, looking backward and forward, and being forced to make a decision.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is your typical high school party guy — outgoing, wild and supremely confident in his ability to land girls. He’s also a closet alcoholic who’s struggling with geometry and feeling pressured to face his own future after he graduates from high school.

When his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), suddenly dumps him, he goes on a drinking binge and ends up asleep on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), one of his high school classmates. Aimee is one of those quiet shy types, not particularly popular, but sweet and smart and longing to go to college in Philadelphia.

Sutter and Aimee strike up an unlikely friendship that blossoms into love. But beneath the surface of their tranquil relationship are family secrets and buried tragedies that they must slowly dig out of each other. They fall in love. They make love. But each has to face the future in a much different way, and the key question in this film is whether their futures can include each other.

While all of this may sound a bit standard, director James Ponsoldt’s approach is anything but. He turns this film into an intimate letter that you read and think about and read some more, and the more you read, the more interested you become in the letter. He takes time to let his characters divulge themselves and he uses space, light and quiet in a way that pulls you into the story.

The real gift in this film, however, is the writing. Scott Neustadter, whose other significant credit includes the very charming (500) Days of Summer, seems to capture these characters in an understated but authentic way. You probably knew some of these people in high school. You may have partied with or slept with or even, from a distance, envied them. In short, they’re believable.

What’s well-written is also picked up in the acting of Teller and Woodley (who both won special jury prizes this year at Sundance), as well as supporting actors such as Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler; Teller as the funny guy who wants to fend off growing up, Woodley as the girlfriend who must fight for her future, Leigh as the besieged mother trying to keep her son on the straight and narrow and Chandler as the absent (and good for nothing) father.

While most of these coming-of-age movies are as predictable as traffic on the 101, The Spectacular Now takes a slightly different route, a more thoughtful route, and leaves the viewer intrigued. The ending in particular is full of possibilities.