From Sundance—ground zero for earnest indie love stories—comes the umpteenth unlikely pairing of a troubled bad boy and a brainy good girl. What’s different, and irresistibly so, about The Spectacular Now is the way that familiar romantic configuration has been rejuvenated (some might say transformed) by a healthy dose of authenticity. The realism begins with the mismatched lovers themselves: infatuated wallflower Shailene Woodley and disarmed charmer Miles Teller. She’s all that from the get-go, a bookish overachiever whose natural good looks are never obscured by a misleading pair of spectacles. (The makeover is an invisible one, performed in the mind of her cool-kid suitor, who only gradually notices what the audience can see from the start.) He’s adolescent royalty, but the rarest kind—a teenage heartthrob whose popularity stems from his irrepressible good nature, an ability to make every subject of his attention feel special. The manner in which these lonely souls connect, through a rebound that becomes something more, rarely stretches credibility. The contrivance comes later, once the film has moved past gentle courtship to soapier social-issue concerns.
Bookended by Teller’s college-application musings—a slightly hackneyed framing device—The Spectacular Now plows through high-school hallmarks: There’s a first kiss, a first moment of bliss beneath the sheets, even a magical senior prom. That these moments end up feeling more true than false, as if torn from a diary and not a screenwriting handbook, is thanks principally to the actors bringing them to life. Teller, who played the sweetly awkward friend in the Footloose remake and a collegiate Vince Vaughn-type in 21 & Over, makes his life-of-the-party protagonist at once enviable and pitiable: On the business end of a breakup, he masks his melancholy with casual charisma, a stream of silver-tongued wit and sincerity. (It’s a star-making performance—or at least it should be.) He’s matched by Woodley, radiating desire—and blooming self-confidence—in a teen role radically different from the one she memorably occupied in The Descendants. Is this bookish beauty being jerked around by Teller’s on-the-mend Lothario? For a while, The Spectacular Now pivots around that burning question.
Adapting an acclaimed YA novel by Tim Tharp, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber retain the insight, and jettison most of the rom-com cutesiness, of their earlier collaboration, (500) Days Of Summer. But the film’s real auteur is probably director James Ponsoldt, who made last year’s sober-up drama Smashed. Here, again, alcoholism is a driving concern: Never without his handy flask or a plastic cup of spiked soda, Teller is besotted in more ways than one. But what he’s really hooked on—per the title—is the thrill of living moment to moment, with no thought given to the scary sprawl of impending adulthood. The movie surrounds him with imperfect grown-up role models: a single mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) trying to protect him from harsh truths; a waspy older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wrapped up in her own life of luxury; a concerned teacher (The Wire’s Andre Royo) and boss (Bob Odenkirk, in a rare dramatic turn); and a deadbeat dad (Kyle Chandler) whose absence the film links to the boy’s weakness for the sauce.
It’s through the introduction of that last character, during a familial reunion that becomes a rude awakening, that The Spectacular Now begins to feel a bit like an intervention. As in Smashed, the film loses something when it turns to getting-clean melodrama. Besides leaning on such shopworn clichés as Teller showering off his ennui, Ponsoldt borrows a bit too freely from Good Will Hunting, even filching that movie’s triumphant final shot. His film works better as a swooning opposites-attract romance, bolstered by such poignant episodes as the couple’s spontaneous first smooch—the punctuation of a long, winding tracking shot that finds the two pulled, with tractor-beam intensity, into each other’s embrace. If Ponsoldt can step beyond the 12 steps, he might make something truly spectacular.