The Spectacular Now
★ ★ ★ ★

Sutter Keely is the kind of guy everyone remembers from high school or college. He’s liked by everyone, loved by teachers, bright, funny… and kind of a mess. His days start with classes, are interrupted briefly by a job, and finish at a party, with a drink in hand all day long.

Sutter is a good kid, but he’s going in a very bad direction. Everyone can see their piece of it, but no one can put together the puzzle to know just how bad of a shape Sutter is in. He seems to have just enough going for him to pull anything off. Which is why when he meets Aimee Finecky, it is no big deal to him, but it is to her.

Sutter and Aimee go to the same school. She knows him – everyone does – but he doesn’t know her. So when he ends up prostrate and hung over on a random lawn the morning after a party, and awakens to find her standing over him while she finishes her mom’s paper route, he is understandably perplexed.

Sutter asks Aimee for help. First in finding his car, then in passing geometry. We all can see that Aimee is instantly smitten by him – after all who wouldn’t be? But Sutter realizes this only more slowly, despite his friend telling him that he will only break her heart.

The scenes of the budding romance between Sutter and Aimee are so undeniably authentic that you feel like you’re watching your teenage years all over again. Kids say “I like you so much” because they’re uncertain and afraid of what saying the word “love” might mean.

Miles Teller (who would be a superstar by now if it weren’t for Josh Trank) plays Sutter with a smooth confidence that makes him incredibly likable even when he’s busting up his ex-girlfriend’s next date. He’s never arrogant, never narcissistic. He’s simply Sutter.

Shailene Woodley is perfectly cast as Aimee. We see her cautiousness and timidity give way to a similar confidence to the one Sutter displays. Sutter can be a good influence on her. There’s just one problem. Sutter loves everyone, and everyone loves Sutter. But deep down, Sutter can’t feel any of this, because he doesn’t love himself. So Aimee is always left feeling a bit like she’s doesn’t have his full attention, and that he’s distracted by something just on the periphery.

The Spectacular Now is a serious film with a terrible title that lulls you into believing it will be a lighthearted teen romance, and with one expertly scripted sequence after another, makes you realize there is something truly, terribly wrong with this young man. There is no evil in Sutter, but there is pain. And pain can become a weapon for those who don’t know how to manage it.

Sutter’s mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) does what she can to hold their family together, trying to provide the structure Sutter needs while working crazy shifts as a nurse. His sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has left a difficult childhood behind to marry Prince Charming, though we can all see that the facade of their idyllic marriage will only last so long. She’s old enough to remember the bad memories of her childhood that Sutter thought were fun, and her tears suggest she still has yet to come to grips with that.

Which is why she’s reluctant when Sutter asks for her help in tracking down their estranged father, played by Kyle Chandler. The role goes completely against Chandler’s type, and while it takes a moment to move past that, his performance is crushing in the part. Every actor in the film is perfectly cast, even Bob Odenkirk as Sutter’s tolerant – but only to a point – boss.

At one point or another, everyone does something to try to right the capsizing ship this is Sutter’s life. Unfortunately, Sutter is smart enough to ensure that each of them can only see their share of his troubles, and none of them thinks to ask anyone else if something is amiss. Only one person can see it all, and we can see Sutter pushing her away.

We’ve all known a Sutter in life. Mine was one of my best friends who died in his mid-thirties. He never found his Aimee – the person who would be his compass – and he always had that cup in his hand, just as Sutter does. A person can only wake up on a stranger’s lawn so many times before they don’t wake up at all.

As we watch the romance blossom, we wish the best for Sutter and Aimee. And when their relationship begins to crack at every seam, we are rooting for them to make it. If not, we’ve already glimpsed the future that lies in store for Sutter.

The Spectacular Now chooses the right ending for its tone, and implores that you pay attention, especially if you know a Sutter. And don’t we all?

Editors’ Note: One of my heroes is Roger Ebert, and this was among the last films he ever reviewed. When you read that review, you sense the gratitude that he must have felt to go back to his youth one more time.