"The Spectacular Now" is rare: a coming-of-age movie featuring a teenage couple about whom you actually give a rip.
The film comes from a novel by Tim Tharpe, adapted by the "(500) Days of Summer" writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. The film's director is James Ponsoldt, whose previous features were "Off the Black" in 2006 and, six years later, the alcohol-soaked recovery drama "Smashed." Addiction provides a theme here as well, but at its best, and despite a nagging series of shortcuts and sentimental flourishes near the end, "The Spectacular Now" has the wisdom and the skill to fold the characters' various problems inside other things. The movie may be about a budding alcoholic and his caretaker-inclined girlfriend, but this is a complicated boy and a complicated girl, both of serious value, on the verge of becoming fuller versions of themselves, a little worse yet infinitely better for wear.
The novel was told from the point of view of its high school senior protagonist, Sutter, played in the film by Miles Teller. This young actor, in his mid-20s, was the best thing in the recent "Footloose" remake (he played Willard), and here he has his chance to step up and fill out a substantial role.
Sutter's the easygoing clique-hopper in his school, comfortable with all sorts of kids, a rolling social director perpetually with a Big Gulp-type soda cup in his hand. There's usually a shot or three from his flask in there as well. He has a penchant for hazy drunkenness, all the better to drown out his feelings regarding an AWOL father (Kyle Chandler) he eventually seeks out for an uneasy reunion.
Sutter recalls John Cusack in "Say Anything," and the character brings some of that teenager's gifts — of gab and a stealthy sincerity — to bear on a lovely new friendship. That friend is Aimee.
Sutter wakes up, in a stupor, early one morning just as Aimee is taking care of her mother's paper route. (In a couple of solid, sad scenes, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the mother.) The manga-reading Aimee is like sunshine. And as played by Shailene Woodley, this borderline-too-good-to-be-true angel of mercy, whom Sutter likes and then loves but treats carelessly, becomes the heart and soul of "The Spectacular Now."
Sutter's approach to life is at once blinkered and generous; it recalls a Stephen Sondheim lyric from "Into the Woods," the one sang by a prince: "Best to take the moment present/ As a present/ For the moment."
The closer the film sticks to Sutter and Aimee and everything they experience together, the more special "The Spectacular Now" becomes. I wish certain plot elements were handled better: Sutter's idealization of his father seems false, and although I don't begrudge the screenwriters for cheering up the book's ending, the one they have seems pat. The result is a good movie, instead of a great one.
But Woodley is genuinely wonderful in it. And Teller's right behind her.
'The Spectacular Now' - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for alcohol use, language and some sexuality — all involving teens)
Running time: 1:35