Coming-of-age movies have reached the point where they’ve almost become indistinguishable from one another.
You take a teenaged kid (the more socially outcast, the better) and have them meet a person or group of people that make him or her realize what a beautiful and unique snowflake they truly are.
It works for everything from comedies to melodramas; adjust the timeframe and soundtrack for nostalgia purposes, wash, rinse and repeat. Viola! You have your own coming-of-age movie. (Individual results may vary).
The core of what makes “The Spectacular Now” one of the greats of the c-o-a genre and one of the best movies of the year is that it takes this concept and gives it a much-needed tweak.
Instead of having a high school pariah learn how fantastic he is, this film has the popular life-of-the-party coming to terms with the fact that maybe things aren’t so great after all.
Miles Teller plays Sutter, a fast-talking, fun-loving, seemingly-confident high school senior. Teller is a winningly charming actor, who stood out playing a much, much less self-aware version of this same character earlier this year in the goofy party-comedy “21 & Over.” At least the guy knows what parts are in his wheelhouse.
To his credit, Teller gets to show off a little more range as Sutter, a guy whose only problem in the world seems to be a breakup with his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson).
But Sutter’s not going to let it get him down, as the movie smartly introduces him as basically every high schooler’s idea of the coolest guy in the class. He seems to have it all figured out, he knows how to score booze and he is always at the center of every good time.
Trying to shake off the doldrums from his break-up, Sutter goes out for a night of hard, hard-partying, only to be woken up the next morning on a strange lawn by an unknown classmate named Amiee (Shailene Woodley), who was out working her morning paper route.
Aimee is an anonymous member of the high school. She’s a good girl with good grades, few friends, and a troubled home life.
Sutter and Aimee hit it off as Aimee blossoms in the warm glow of Sutter’s attention. Woodley is an excellent actress, who first turned heads when she snagged a Golden Globe nomination for her work in “The Descendants.” She’s great as Aimee as she gives a performance so natural and effortless it makes you wish you could donate to Aimee’s scholarship fund.
Anxiety builds as Aimee’s fragile confidence only seems to be doomed to be crushed on the rocks of Sutter’s “live in the now” philosophy of life that leaves him a borderline alcoholic with no plans for the future.
But Aimee’s presence makes Sutter take a look at his own home life and his dysfunctional relationships with his hard-working mother (the great Jennifer Jason Leigh), his social-ladder-climbing sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and his estranged father (Kyle Chandler, who gives an incredible, pivotal performance).
“The Spectacular Now” is directed by James Ponsoldt, who directed one of last year’s indie favs “Smashed.” The guy is an actor’s director as he puts the entire movie in the hands of the performances and gives his cast plenty of space to work in.
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s working with a script from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the dudes who wrote the inspired “(500) Days of Summer.”
All parties involved have delivered an emotionally thoughtful, heartfelt, funny, life-affirming movie. They’ve also shown that when it comes to growing up, realizing how awesome you are isn’t nearly as profound as realizing how much you suck.
“The Spectacular Now” is rated R for alcohol use, language, and some sexuality — all involving teens.