The Spectacular Now

Three features into his career, 34-year-old director James Ponsoldt has built a little cottage industry of intimate portraits of alcoholics. Each time, he approaches the affliction from a new angle, the bottle playing a different role in the character’s life and the film’s arc. His previous film, Smashed (12), is a tender study of a woman’s alcoholism and recovery, and how both affect (and are affected by) her marriage. In The Spectacular Now, drinking helps a teenager, Sutter Keely, deflect pesky memories and postpone decisions about what to do after high school.

A trusty flask of whiskey helps keep Sutter rooted in a never-ending present, but if life may feel spectacular now, trouble lies ahead. As incarnated by Miles Teller, Sutter is the life of the party: he brings the fun, chills you out, and helps you get laid. Yet the chummy front conceals an inner turmoil. An effort to capture how things really are, The Spectacular Now is an earnest coming-of-age film that avoids the glib reflexes symptomatic of the genre, and the sanctimony and staginess of overwrought addiction melodramas.

Sutter is another of Ponsoldt’s flawed characters with good hearts, boozers with personality and verve who gradually develop relationships that enable them to open up and grow. Ponsoldt is adept at casting: for his debut feature, Off the Black (06), he snagged Nick Nolte and Timothy Hutton; Smashed rides on a breakout performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. His actors look like real people, not the studly hunks, dark brooding romantic types, or nubile jailbait freshly off the Mouseketeer boat. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), who plays the bookish everygirl Aimee, is attractive here, as is Teller, but he’s no Adonis and she’s no siren.

The Spectacular Now

Winstead returns as Sutter’s gentrified sister, who parlayed her beauty into security as a dinner-hosting society wife of a wealthy lawyer with a crooked perma-smile. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Sutter’s brittle working mom, raising him alone; Bob Odenkirk, whose salty Saul Goodman adds a dash of levity to Breaking Bad, appears as the owner of the men’s clothing store where Sutter clerks. Rounding out the cast is Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights) as Sutter’s father.

Taking small-town America as his usual backdrop, the director enlivens his settings with details such as a tracking shot down quiet residential lanes where teens fling papers off of dented pick-ups at dawn, or a view of canoes pushing off into mist-shrouded lakes at dusk. But The Spectacular Now is the first of Ponsoldt’s features that he didn’t have a hand in writing. Based on a novel by Tim Tharp, it was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who wrote 2009’s (500) Days of Summer, a relationship (or rather, break-up) film that captured romantic angst for a certain stratum of twenty-somethings.

In The Spectacular Now, Neustadter and Weber return with a similarly strong script: smart, hip, deftly handling the young characters, and with an ear for their idiom. But also like the screenwriters’ earlier film, it’s periodically marred by lurches toward a twee sensibility and by an over-crafted story that doesn’t always synch with Ponsoldt’s realist bent. At times, the film has the feel of a wholesome message film, diligently on point.

But then a barrage of unapologetic cursing in good fun, or an unbroken scene of first-time sex, arrives and shatters any simple view of the movie. Ponsoldt finds his own voice, pitched somewhere between a Rockwell vision of good-hearted middle-America innocence and knowing, contemporary cool. He enjoys playing with our expectations by following conventions, luring us into the sense that we know what’s coming, and then swerving just a little off-road for a detour.