Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that screenwriter Michael Weber will host a Q&A after the 10:15 p.m. showing on Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Weber will introduce the movie at the 10:15 p.m. showing. This verison has been updated.
If “The Spectacular Now” weren’t so beautifully directed by James Ponsoldt, a viewer might think the coming-of-age story of two high-schoolers was culled from home movies. With its quiet moments and easy pace, it effortlessly illustrates the realities of being a teenager, with the awkward first times and the casual selfishness, the drive to rebel but also the need to feel loved.
The movie’s success rests on the shoulders of its two superb leads, who garnered a well-deserved acting award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) plays Aimee, an earnest people-pleaser who stumbles upon Sutter (Miles Teller) while delivering newspapers. He is sprawled on a stranger’s lawn after a hard-partying night of shots and beers aimed at blurring the memories of his recent breakup. The unlikely pair — Sutter with his live-in-the-now mantra and the bookish Aimee, who harbors dreams of college and working for NASA — strike up a friendship that leads to something more.
Aimee’s intentions are clear. She’s a bit star-struck, and she openheartedly embraces the notion that the popular class clown might be her first boyfriend. But Sutter is harder to gauge. He still has eyes for his ex, and he might be using Aimee to make his former flame jealous. His constant drinking makes him no more trustworthy. And yet, he’s immensely likable. Charismatic and quick-witted with a twinkle in his eye, Sutter is the kind of kid who could argue his way to an A, if only he cared enough about grades to do it.
Woodley and Teller wholly embody these characters and their rapport feels entirely unscripted. When Sutter tells Aimee she’s beautiful, she recoils, looking ungainly with arms crossed against her chest and half-laughs back, “Oh my god, no.” It’s awkward, but not in the way we’ve come to expect from movies, which often push artlessness to the point of discomfort merely to get a laugh. Instead, the feeling is both sweetly familiar and refreshing in its naturalism, as if the film has unlocked an emotional time capsule.
“(500) Days of Summer” writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapted the screenplay from a young adult novel by Tim Tharp, and they succeed at condensing the story and keeping the focus only on events that strain or bolster this rookie relationship. While the characters talk a lot about their parents, Aimee’s mother barely appears on screen, but her absence isn’t conspicuous. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Sutter’s mom, and she makes economical use of her short screen time as his exhausted and irritable guardian. A few simple lines can convey so much, as when she mentions working another double-shift or compares Sutter to her absentee ex-husband. But for all the profound emotion, the film offers plenty of humor, mostly thanks to Sutter’s irrepressible spirit and entertaining barbs.
For a movie so rooted in reality, a late-in-the-game plot point tests credulity somewhat; it’s hard to believe Aimee would be starry-eyed enough to still cling to Sutter. But the movie rights itself in time for the final credits.
So often, we go to movies to escape real life, but the wistful “The Spectacular Now” proves that revisiting reality can be so much more powerful than avoiding it. The movie captures the raw excitement and heartbreak of adolescence so completely that it manages to replace a seen-it-all jaded heart with the butterflies that accompany fresh experiences.
R. At area theaters. Contains alcohol use, language and sexuality, all involving teens.
There will be a Q&A with screenwriter Michael Weber after these Friday showings: 5:30 p.m. at Angelika Film Center and 7:45 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Weber will introduce the movie at the 10:15 p.m. showing Friday at E Street.