Movie review: 'The Spectacular Now' is just about perfect

Shailene Woodley, left, and Miles Teller in a scene from "The Spectacular Now."

Everybody in the senior class knows hard-partying, back-slapping Sutter. He's kind of a high school legend. He lives for the moment.

But in director James Ponsoldt's coming-of-age tale “The Spectacular Now,” life is about to change for Sutter after his girlfriend suddenly dumps him. Also for Aimee, who finds him passed out on a neighbor's lawn the next morning as she begins her paper route.

The Spectacular Now

Quality: ★★★★ (out of four)

Director: James Ponsoldt

Stars: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brie Larson

Rating: R for alcohol use, language, sexuality — all involving teens

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Theater: Film Streams

She knows who he is. He's clueless about her. Together they go looking for his car while she delivers papers, and a relationship is born. What that relationship might become, and where it will lead them, is the movie.

What's spectacular about “The Spectacular Now” is the combination of a terrific script by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”) and stellar performances from Miles Teller (“Rabbit Hole”) and Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) as Sutter and Aimee, plus from Brie Larson as Sutter's ex.

There's an unflagging ring of truth through every moment of this sad, sweet story.

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, “The Spectacular Now” takes archetypes — the “nice girl” and the party boy in a mismatched romance — and then blows them up by digging beneath the surface and taking the story to unexpected places and depths.

Sutter, who not only has a flask he's constantly sipping from but also gives Aimee one as a present, is well down the road to alcoholism. His who-cares attitude about the future and an ever-present smile cover up a whole lot of pain. His mom, a bitter, exhausted night-shift nurse (Jennifer Jason Leigh), has kept the truth from him about why his dad left the family more than a decade ago — and left a hole in the psyche of his son.

Aimee, on the other hand, knows why her father is absent. She saw him die of addiction. Her controlling mother wants to keep her close, but she has dreams of going off to college.

As you watch the story unfold, you wonder if Aimee can rescue Sutter before he drags her down with him. You wonder if he's using her until he can find a way to charm his old girlfriend back into his arms. Or if her naive, trusting heart is about to get stomped on. Or if his drinking is about to lead to irreversible tragedy.

But you also see ways they are good for each other. Aimee urges Sutter to try to find his dad (Kyle Chandler, “Friday Night Lights”). Sutter pushes Aimee to confront her mother about the future and make college happen.

Ponsoldt keeps it real in so many crucial moments — between mother and son, girl and boy, boy and his ex, boy and his boss — including an ending unlike those of typical coming-of-age movies. Ponsoldt's track record includes two more excellent, small, relationship pictures, “Off the Black” and “Smashed,” both of which also included substance abuse.

The only fault I could find here is that Teller, 26, and Woodley, almost 23, are a tad old for playing teens. But they play them so well, you won't wish for recasting. Woodley, in particular, could notch her second Oscar nod.

So what's Bob's criteria for a 4-star movie?

It's true. I don't give four-star ratings to many movies.

In fact, “The Spectacular Now” may be the first for 2013 since “Amour” opened here last January. An Austrian film set in Paris, it was about an elderly couple struggling after the wife suffers a series of debilitating strokes.

I also gave four stars to “Silver Linings Playbook,” a clever dramedy that won Jennifer Lawrence a best-actress Oscar as a distraught widow falling for a bipolar guy (Bradley Cooper); and to “The Descendants,” which won director Alexander Payne, an Omaha native, his second adapted-screenplay Oscar. That one, also a mix of comedy and drama, was about an estranged dad (George Clooney) and his two daughters coping after his wife lands in an irreversible coma and he learns she's been cheating on him.

All three of those movies were multiple Oscar nominees, including for best picture.

I don't necessarily expect “The Spectacular Now” to be a big award contender, though I would be happy if it were.

Why do I so seldom hand out all four stars? Well, after all, four out of four suggests near perfection, doesn't it?

Most movies have at least one detracting flaw you can point at.

I give four stars when, to my thinking, great writing, direction, acting, editing and cinematography come together in one movie.

It's all about how much a movie makes me think and how deeply it makes me feel.

Among 3.5-star movies this year: a cartoon, “The Croods”; a foreign-language drama, “The Other Son”; and a summer popcorn movie, “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

And remember: The best of 2013 is probably yet to come.

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