The thing about coming-of-age stories is that everyone has one, which makes it different than everything else at the movies: we are not all rescuing the world from supervillains, falling in love with handsome strangers, or traveling the world in search of fame and fortune.
Yet good coming-of-age stories are tricky to make. John Hughes pulled it off over and over again in the 80s and 90s because he told stories of ordinary teenagers in ordinary situations. But plenty of teen movies and TV shows—though they're often fun to watch—tend toward the cinematic equivalent of actual high school: those are the pretty, fun, cool kids up there, the ones who have everything together and throw great parties. And the rest of us? We're all the dorks in the audience.
This is one of the greatest achievements of The Spectacular Now: its teenagers are real. They do really dumb things. They're in denial about their failings even as they try to do what's right. Sometimes they seem like confident adults, and then sometimes they're lost, scared children. They even look like normal teenagers, blemishes and scars and all, and they act and talk and relate like ordinary teenagers who are still finding their feet.
Based on the beloved YA novel (a 2008 National Book Award finalist) and adapted by the screenwriter behind 500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now is a story of a boy, Sutter, who falls for a girl, Aimee. Sutter (Miles Teller, from the Footloose remake) is the sort of high school senior whom teachers love and ruefully hate: he's not a great student, but he's always smiling and respectful—he just can't get his act together long enough to actually study. He's fun, and funny, and friendly and loyal, and a high-functioning alcoholic: more or less the life of the party. He's got no idea what the future holds for him, but that's because he lives in the now.
Then one morning after a bender brought on by a breakup, Sutter wakes up sprawled on somebody's front lawn, not sure where his car is. A girl he kind of remembers from school is standing over him, trying to wake him up. She's Aimee (the luminous, perfect Shailene Woodley, who star is in rapid ascent), and she's on her way to run her mother's paper route for her, so Sutter tags along to find his car.
A friendship blossoms and then, from there, a relationship, which is unexpected to everyone, including Sutter's best friend. Aimee is a nice girl, but relatively unknown around the school. She's in the French club and tutors Sutter in geometry and has never had a boyfriend and likes sci-fi comics. Sutter isn't sure how serious he really wants to get with Aimee, and he's haunted by the absence of his father, who has never really been part of his life. But as Aimee and Sutter grow closer, both find their perspectives on life changing—both life in the now, and in the future.
One of the greatest things I can say about The Spectacular Now is that I wasn't sure how I felt about it until the end, and that means the moral universe of the story is complex, like ours. There are no merely good or merely bad characters. Sutter is not the jock and Aimee is not the nerd and their parents are broken, but not beyond repair.
Further, the film skillfully captures what it is to be a teenager, with a maturing but still green outlook on life. One of the hallmarks of being a grownup is the ability to delay gratification for a future benefit. But at the same time, always delaying can mean that one fails to see and experience the beauty and joy of living. Aimee and Sutter both grapple with these, inching slowly toward balance.
Yet it's not only Sutter and Aimee who have to grow up, and that's why The Spectacular Now is more than just a film about teenagers that will appeal to the young and bring up nostalgia for the rest of us. The adults in this story need to mature just as much as the teenagers: to learn to stand on their own two feet, to learn to find joy in their relationships, and to learn how to treat those around them with respect, dignity, and love.
This is perhaps why we need movies like this one, and what a good coming-of-age story can do, grounded as it is in our common experiences. They gently prod us to see if we're also behaving immaturely, and they make us consider how our own actions affect those around us, including our children, our friends, and our loved ones. And they do it all through excellent filmmaking, pitch-perfect performances, and a compassionate, nuanced plot.
The Spectacular Now is one of the best films of the summer. May its tribe increase.
The Family Corner
The movie is set among a fairly typical high school, and so there is pervasive teen drinking, some bad language (including f-bombs), sex and talk of sex, and parties. One character drives while under the influence repeatedly. Adults discuss their past actions, which often have hurt their children. There is one sex scene between teenagers in which they remove their clothing on camera (though not their underwear); it exists to develop the characters, but it lasts quite a while. Several teenage couples discuss moving in together after high school. There is one brief, somewhat terrifying moment of danger.
Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic for Christianity Today and an English and humanities professor at The King's College in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter at @alissamarie.