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The Spectacular Now

The gatekeepers of the motion picture awards world very seldom give prizes for the kind of unheralded performance Miles Teller gives in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now. For that matter, they just as rarely recognize a modest, intimately scaled coming-of-age drama like this one. But Teller’s emotionally vivid, involving portrayal of 17-year-old Sutter, the central character, is about as impressive as almost any performance I’ve caught this year, and probably for a longer period than that. (Another one, Michael B. Jordan’s in Fruitvale Station, is a more likely awards nominee.)

Despite the movie’s reliance on Teller’s performance and his character’s slowly deepening personal crisis, The Spectacular Now isn’t just a cinematic one-man band; it’s an expertly assembled, fine-grained picture with a number of supporting actors whose skillful work lends important details and depth to Sutter’s story.

Adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel, and evocatively shot in the director’s hometown, Athens, GA, The Spectacular Now follows a series of movies in recent years about youngsters at crucial life junctures (Adventureland, Mud, The Way, Way Back). Its narrative scope and intensity are more modest than those in some other of these movies. Its low-key material includes some elements that may feel at least a little familiar. But Ponsoldt’s handling of them is assured and persuasive.

Sutter is first encountered in the middle of his senior year in high school, flippantly writing a college application essay on his computer. In short order, he loses a girlfriend whose absence affects him more than he expected, chances to meet the sweet, romantically inexperienced Aimee (Shailene Woodley), with whom he becomes more involved than he intended, and has to confront his long-festering and troubling questions about his mother’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) divorce years ago from his long missing father (Kyle Chandler).

Sutter is the quintessence of young smooth operator, cleverly ingratiating, and deflecting potential difficulties. (Few kids could get away with exclaiming “Awesome” as often as Sutter does.) But Teller’s deft, eventually touching acting conveys the signs of the generous-hearted human being often camouflaged by Sutter’s act.

Nevertheless, as the school year advances, his college acceptance and even his graduation prospects are jeopardized, and his relationship with Aimee is imperiled.

The Spectacular Now takes a couple of melodramatic turns, but Ponsoldt doesn’t let them take over his movie. He and it are sensitively attuned to Sutter’s situation, but they don’t sentimentalize him. Not a lot really happens in the picture, but by its end, it feels as if what’s gone on has somehow been important.

Watch the trailer for The Spectacular Now

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