The Spectacular Now has a focus on teenage life that doesn’t portray it one-dimensionally: you won’t find idealistic talks of life here or kids hating every waking moment of their lives. These are people on the verge of beginning their adulthood, trying to find their way in a world that hasn’t dealt them many distinct hardships, but has left them emotionally unstable. Sutter (Miles Teller) is a prime example: he’s an alcoholic as a senior in high school, with his father (Kyle Chandler) leaving him as a child and making his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) take care of him. When Cassidy (Brie Larson), the girl that grounds him, breaks up with him upon realizing that he may be cheating on her, Sutter goes into even more of a spiral. He begins dating good-girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who has never had a boyfriend and slowly falls for him. She’s focused, smart, attentive, caring; he’s out-of-control, doesn’t try in school, doesn’t make plans far in advance, and seems ambivalent about a lot of things.
But he does care. He truly does. He begins to love her, and that’s where the magic of this film happens. James Ponsoldt (director of last year’s excellent Smashed) heads a film that becomes wholly focused in parts, if sometimes uneven in its narrative advances (particularly with the film’s conclusion), but emotionally it’s raw and intimate. There are many telling scenes here: Aimee presumably losing her virginity but that never being stated, Sutter trying to get into the comic books she enjoys reading, and a telling conversation between Sutter and Cassidy about how he’s always drunk. This is an occasionally brutal film, but it’s also remarkably funny and sincere. There aren’t developments that feel disingenuous, nor do the most familiar scenes feel clichéd. They fit the characters, the characters fit them, and the conclusion feels more like the beginning of an even more telling story. Not only is this one of the year’s best films thus far, it’s one of the best tales of high school love and woe ever made.