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Spectacular Now Reboots Teen Romance Genre with Strong Acting, Message

<i>Spectacular Now</i> Reboots Teen Romance Genre with Strong Acting, Message

DVD Release Date: January 14, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: August 2, 2013 (limited)
Rating: R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality—all involving teens
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 95 min.
Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

What ever happened to teen romance at the movies?

The genre hasn’t disappeared, of course. It's still a staple. But straightforward teen romances don't seem to be as common in contemporary cinema as they were in the 1980s. Yes, the Twilight and Hunger Games films could be considered romances, but their supernatural and fantastical elements set them apart from the real-world coming-of-age teen films of a few decades ago. Think about movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink which tapped into teenage romantic desire and the challenge of connecting with one another across school cliques; these movies helped to launch the careers of several promising actors.

In 2011, the little-seen but well-performed Like Crazy put its own spin on the genre, substituting slightly older (college age) protagonists and legal problems for the social-status, high school-based drama of better-known genre entries. Now comes The Spectacular Now, starring two little-known actors in the lead roles who, like the leads in those 1980s high-school dramas, could go on to great things.

Sutter (Miles Teller, Footloose) lives for the moment. He underachieves in his classes but makes sure he's at the weekend parties. A flask always close at hand, Miles stays buzzed much of the day. Although the film opens with Miles composing an answer for a college application, the story soon makes it clear that he has no ambitions beyond his day-to-day plans. He drinks, he gets drunk, he falls down.

That's how Aimee (Shailene Woodley) finds Sutter—passed out in the front yard of a home he doesn't recognize. The two strike up a friendship, which soon develops into something more, even if Sutter can't bring himself to acknowledge that fact. His relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larson, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) has faltered, but he hasn't entirely let her go. When a friend notes Sutter's growing closeness to Aimee and calls her "a strange choice for a rebound," Sutter assures him that he's merely giving the 17-year-old Aimee her first "boyfriend experience"—nothing serious, at least not to Sutter.

Nor is anything else serious to Sutter. He works at a local men's clothing store, but he steals sips from his flask while on duty. When Cassidy's new boyfriend tracks him down at the shop and confronts Sutter about his lingering affection for Cassidy, Sutter turns on the charm and leaves the new beau pleasantly flummoxed. "You're not the joke everyone thinks," Cassidy's new boyfriend tells Sutter.

Sutter doesn't much care about what others think of him. He's too busy keeping himself "lubricated" to confront the pain in his life. Why does Sutter drink so often? The Spectacular Now suggests Sutter is covering the pain from his father's long-ago abandonment of his mom and family.

In one of the movie's stronger sequences, Sutter, with Aimee in tow, tracks down the father (Kyle Chandler, Super 8) he's never met, only to discover dad's an irresponsible barfly who follows Sutter's own philosophy. "I don't live in the past," he tells Sutter in answer to questions about why he left Sutter's mom. "I live in the now. That's what it's all about."

Will the encounter be the wake-up call Sutter needs to keep him from falling into his father's fruitless, empty lifestyle?

The great strength of The Spectacular Now is its actors. Teller carries the film effortlessly, but it's Woodley who dazzles, justifying the hype that surrounded her after her Golden Globe-nominated performance as the daughter of George Clooney's character in The Descendants.

Though well performed, the story doesn't go anywhere unexpected: We know Sutter will face a crisis that forces him to deal with his apathy. But the film's critique of Sutter’s "live in the moment" philosophy—and the unwillingness to reckon with one's past failures that goes hand-in-hand with such a view—is notable in that it may come as a cold splash of water to some of The Spectacular Now's target viewers (the film is rated R but its protagonists are seniors in high school).

Proverbs provides a different prescription for how to handle the disappointments of life: "Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy" (28:13). And the Psalmist writes, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (46:1). Sutter doesn't get to the point of taking refuge in God, but The Spectacular Now shows him coming to a point of recognition about his own failures and need for love. If that idea doesn't come across as spectacular, it may, at the least, be a useful jolt for viewers who embrace a "live in the moment" lifestyle and need to think more broadly about love, acceptance and the things that make life meaningful. That makes this film hard to dislike, even if it's less than revelatory.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; several f-words; foul language; racial jokes; middle fingers are extended
  • Drinking/Smoking: Sutter drinks constantly throughout the film, sharing his flask with Aimee and giving her a flask of her own as a gift; party scenes show teens drinking; girls ask where they can get beer, and Sutter shows them a cooler filled with it; Sutter drinks on the job and is told he can't come to work "loaded;" Sutter remembers his dad letting him taste beer; Cassidy asks Sutter if he's turned Aimee into "a lush;" bar scenes with Sutter's dad, who orders two pitchers of beer for himself, Sutter and Aimee; drunken driving
  • Sex/Nudity: Cassidy is shown on top of Sutter in bed, having sex; Sutter says he'll get his friend "some action;" references to "hooking up;" kissing; Sutter asks his friend if he got any "tongue action;" Sutter and Aimee take off their shirts in bed, and Aimee is shown in her bra; Aimee gives Sutter a condom and, off screen, we hear her putting it on Sutter; they have sex
  • Violence/Crime: A car accident
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: Sutter's parents are divorced, and Aimee's mom is a widow; Aimee says she knows her future marriage will work out because she's "thought it all out;" Sutter's sister says their dad cheated on their mom

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Publication date: August 9, 2013