Coming-of-age movies, at least in America, often hinge on a loss of innocence, either one’s virginity or one’s naivete. The formula tracks a misfit’s stumble toward acceptance or transcendence, usually to the tune of a greatest-hits soundtrack.
The new movie The Spectacular Now, based on Tim Tharp’s celebrated young-adult novel, is exceptional in that its young hero is socially confident and genuinely outgoing. High school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) never met a party he didn’t like, and when there isn’t one he becomes the party. He’s a boozer happy to live in the moment. The problem is that makes him hazy about the future.
Director James Ponsoldt has been drawn to stories about alcoholism, but this work is more fully realized than his two previous features, Off the Black (2006) and last year’s Smashed. Sharing the credit for this are screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose bittersweet 2009 romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer proved them suited to adapting Tharp’s novel about a witty, agnostic Oklahoma cynic who’s (almost) transformed by love. They capture Sutter’s voice with a bookend device in which he narrates a college application letter, and we experience his story as a sustained flashback. Ponsoldt filmed in his own native Georgia, but there are no specific identifiers as to location; it could be Anytown, U.S.A.
The lack of “God talk” in a small-town setting is refreshing, since many Hollywood movies portray rural hamlets as bastions of self-righteous religious bigotry. The reality is that a close-knit society can be a cocoon that nurtures a youngster as he develops, or a stasis he yearns to escape. Cinematographer Jess Hall (Son of Rambow) uses 35-millimeter film to register all the bloom of Sutter and his hopeful new girlfriend, Aimee (Shailene Woodley); they are achingly beautiful in their tentative steps toward true romance. And the anamorphic format conveys a sense of wide-open spaces in which Sutter finds endless diversions, yet ironically sees little potential beyond his part-time job as a clothing salesman.
Maybe his inability to imagine a life after high school is linked to his dismissal of any belief in life after death. Maybe his abandonment by his alcoholic father (Kyle Chandler) led to a rejection of the idea of a heavenly Father. We root for Sutter, but the film is ambiguous as to whether he’ll be a healthy adult; with its emphasis on a “higher power,” Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t seem his likely path (but perhaps Rational Recovery?).
There are lots of ongoing conversations in America about a deity, especially when talk turns to hot-button issues like abortion. Yet studies show that an increasing number of us do not affiliate with any religion. In its humanist emphasis on existence in the immediate present, the film shows life as both a gift from nature and a responsibility to ourselves as much as others. With The Spectacular Now, the coming-of-age movie grows up.