'Once you actually talk to her, you see why she is so beautiful," Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a freewheeling high school senior, says to his puzzled buddy in The Spectacular Now, explaining why he has, indeed, fallen for Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), the unlikeliest of prospects.
Shy, up at dawn for a paper route, a diligent student with posters of unicorns on her wall and a bookshelf of sci-fi and anime, Aimee is nothing like Sutter's previous girlfriend, the blond and bubbly Cassidy (Brie Larson).
Sutter and Cassidy were "the life of every party." And then Cassidy dumped Sutter, and the party was over.
If all this sounds like predictable teen romance stuff, it is - and yet it very much isn't. Written by (500) Days of Summer's Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, directed by James Ponsoldt, and beautifully realized by Teller and Woodley, The Spectacular Now captures the exhilaration and confusion, longing and dread of young romance with raw honesty and insight. Nothing rings false, nothing feels "cute."
Consider that Sutter, in fact, is a pretty messed-up dude - a fledgling alcoholic who keeps a flask of whiskey at the ready, and who harbors little ambition to move on to college (even as the film uses his voice-over of an admissions essay as its narrative device).
He works in an old-fashioned men's clothing store, where he chats up the (few) customers and looks to his boss (Bob Odenkirk, Saul on Breaking Bad) as the dad he never had: His father is long gone, a drunk who drifted off to who knows where. His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a nurse. They share a house, but very little else.
As Sutter begins to really know Aimee - and as we do, too - her life reveals itself to be not so plain and simple, either. Woodley, the older of George Clooney's two messed-up daughters in The Descendants, is terrific here: her face slightly blemished, her eyes wide with wonder. Aimee could easily be hurt, and Sutter's just the guy to do it.
The Spectacular Now feels genuine in almost every respect, from the unflashy cinematography and the sparingly deployed music cues to the natural, unhurried performances of its two stars.
They will get to you, truly.
The Spectacular Now *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by James Ponsoldt. With Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, and Brie Larson. Distributed by A24.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz East and Cinemark at the Ritz Center/NJ