Pairing a handsome or popular guy with a shy or offbeat young woman is catnip for romantics. It propelled “The Way We Were” and “Sixteen Candles,” and fueled millions of “Twilight” obsessions.
Such pairings appeal both to those who yearn to be noticed and to connoisseurs of diamonds in the rough.
So “The Spectacular Now” starts out highly promising when its life-of-the-party protagonist, high school senior Sutter (Miles Teller), notices, appreciates and starts to date his pretty but slightly geeky classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley, from “The Descendants”). Then the movie just gets better and more complex.
“Spectacular” challenges movie-romance expectations by assuming the point of view not of a starry-eyed girl but a bleary-eyed, sometimes reckless boy who drinks too much, and by questioning whether Mr. Popular is even the right guy for Aimee.
It does this while maintaining a slice-of-life feel and breezy pace. Deeply affecting without making obvious plays for the heartstrings, “Spectacular” will please adults as much as teenagers (teens old enough for R-rated movies, that is). Both will see the nuance and truth in Teller’s and Woodley’s performances and admire director James Ponsoldt’s willingness to leave room for ambiguity.
Ponsoldt directed and co-wrote last year’s “Smashed,” which concerned a couple in their 30s still drinking like college kids. “Spectacular” comes from a young-adult book by Tim Tharp but covers roughly similar territory.
Sutter is a friend to all, joking and charming and initiating group dance moves at parties. He flatters classmates, male and female, coming off as sincere instead of smarmy. He encourages exuberance in others and maintains his own upbeat attitude with sips from a plastic convenience-store cup containing soda and a little something extra from a flask. The cup and flask go with him everywhere – not just parties.
Ruggedly handsome in the Robert Mitchum mold, Teller (“21 & Over”) has a face that warns of danger and a buoyant manner that makes you forget any potential threat. He’s perfectly cast as Sutter, whose drinking endangers himself and others, but who also is a sweetheart.
He first connects with Aimee, a longtime classmate he previously had no reason to get to know, after he passes out on a random lawn. Aimee discovers him on her early-morning newspaper delivery route. (Both Sutter and Aimee work, and neither’s father is in the picture. The teens’ relationships to other adults in their lives often are sketchily drawn – the movie’s only real flaw).
Because he’s a nice guy, Sutter helps her throw newspapers. Because he treats every day as an adventure – appreciating the spectacular now – he pours his all into every toss.
Then he makes a lunch date with Aimee. Why not? She’s adorable.
Woodley was nominated for a Golden Globe for her terrific performance as an authority-questioning dad sasser in “The Descendants.” Here she crafts a far different yet still achingly authentic teen – one whose lack of guile gives the audience as much of a rooting interest in her fate as in Sutter’s.
Aimee is a rule-follower and a good student with her own interests – in manga comics and science fiction books – and friends. Before she met Sutter, Aimee was self-contained and just fine, really, if not exactly fulfilled.
Woodley lends tentative hopefulness, tinged with relief, to Aimee’s first conversations with Sutter. The look on her face says Aimee knows her life finally is about to start.
Sutter’s life, by contrast, has stalled. He has yet to apply to college, though graduation looms. He just split from his longtime girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson, from “The United States of Tara”), and has been warding off the pain with sips from his soda cup.
Aimee might be a new form of analgesic.
Or he might be falling for her. It’s hard to tell.
Sutter’s enthusiasm can overwhelm his judgment. As we can see from Teller’s emphatic body language, Sutter really wants Aimee to know she’s special. He puffs up with purpose when urging Aimee to stand up to her mother, whose neediness might keep Aimee from going away to college.
But is Aimee his girlfriend or a worthy cause? Teller brings more ardor to scenes between Sutter and his ex, Cassidy. But the sadness and regret Larson lends these exchanges suggest that in his alcohol haze, Sutter has sentimentalized this relationship.
Teller’s determinedly neutral expression, when Cassidy reminds Sutter of how things truly were, tells us Sutter knows the truth, too. But he doesn’t want to face it – or a future beyond high school.
Love won’t save Sutter, but you sure hope something does, because Teller and director Ponsoldt have crafted a character who only grows more sympathetic as the complications below his sunny exterior are revealed.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.