Coming of age, at least on film, has seldom felt as real as it does in "The Spectacular Now." Or as heartbreaking.
Credit that to the movie's lead actors, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, whose talent and authenticity are so self-evident that the jury at this year's Sundance Film Festival gave them a special prize for acting.
Teller plays Sutter Keely, who with his longtime girlfriend, Cassidy (Alison Brie), was considered the life of the party by everyone in their Athens, Ga., high school thanks in part to their copious consumption of alcohol. But when Cassidy dumps Sutter, he tries to keep the party going without her. He espouses "living in the now" because the past and the future are so terrifying.
That's how Sutter finds himself waking up on the lawn of Aimee Fineky (played by Woodley), who's different from most of the popular girls he knows. Aimee is studious, kind of nerdy and genuinely sweet. She soon falls hard for Sutter, and in the process starts emulating his behavior including his drinking.
But "The Spectacular Now" isn't merely a cautionary tale about teen drinking, even if director James Ponsoldt's previous movie was the alcoholism drama "Smashed." Thanks to Ponsoldt's eye for detail, and a sensitive script by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber ("(500) Days of Summer"), it's a sharply detailed take on the awkwardness of young love.
As the relationship grows, both teens reveal insecurities that could wreck them. For Aimee, it's the worry that she won't be able to escape Georgia for a promising college opportunity in Philadelphia. For Sutter, it's the shadow of his father (Kyle Chandler), who left Sutter's mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) years earlier under circumstances that Sutter has mythologized to an unhealthy degree.
Teller, who excels as fast-talking know-it-alls (as in "21 & Over"), brings that easygoing charm to Sutter but then he digs deeper and finds a core of sadness and self-loathing underneath. Woodley, so touching as George Clooney's gamine daughter in "The Descendants," continues her rise to stardom in the way she lets Aimee blossom from fragile teen to determined woman.
Together, Teller and Woodley have a chemistry that Hollywood would bottle if it could. They spark off each other, both in the tender romantic interludes and in the hard-edged dramatic moments when Aimee tries to hang on as the self-destructive Sutter is pushing her away. Their stunning work makes "The Spectacular Now" a beautiful and aching experience.
'The Spectacular Now'
Two teens find love, and insecurities, in this heartbreaking coming-of-age drama.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, August 23.
Rating • R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality - all involving teens
Running time • 95 minutes.