Movie: The Spectacular Now (2013)
Overview: A young man has his recklessly carefree attitude challenged by a summer romance. Rated R; 95 minutes.
Astonishingly Fresh: The same minimalistic guidelines that render teen romances difficult to make also make them hard to measure. Honestly, if aliens abducted me with my movie collection and demand I introduce them to teenage love via Earthly art, here is how I imagine that conversation might play out:
Aliens [in robot voices, which doesn’t make sense]: Show us art about teen love!
Me: Okay, let’s see, here is Romeo and Juliet. That’s a good one. Aaannnnddd… Here is Say Anything! And that should cover it! That’s about the only ones that matter!
Aliens: What about those there, with the werewolf and vampire and strange staring girl with the Adam’s apple?
Me: Oh, those are just… gifts. I mean, someone left them… Just don’t worry about them.
Aliens: But those look like teens!
Me: [punches aliens]
Aliens: [Heads explode]
Me: Welcome to Earf! [Escapes]
But having watched The Spectacular Now, I may be able to offer these perverted aliens a third movie before I escape. I enjoyed it that much. I think I know the recipe now.
Step One: Make the lovers as likable as possible without stretching to make them relatable. Director James Ponsoldt has done that. Sutter (Miles Teller) is hilarious, witty, and chalk full of charm. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is awkward and self-doubting, but intelligent, magnetic, and able to convey the most disarming sort of adoration. Neither character fits into the archetypes that teen movies like to force us to use when we think about/remember high school. These are two distinct and individualized characters, who aren’t like the friends we had/have at that age, but they would be if we knew them.
Step Two: Don’t force conflict. Don’t stack the deck. That transition stage of childhood to adulthood is factory loaded with its own problems: developing a sense of self, planning the future, keeping up with new music but not seeming mainstream, etc. And these are the things (at least the first two) that frame the blossoming romance here, and it is quite a thing watching the characters negotiate, in real terms, how to make it all work.
Step Three: Love is nebulous. Can’t script it. Especially young love. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have cleverly adapted a script from Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name. Woodley and Teller bring with them a natural and organic chemistry, allowing conversations to feel real, witnessed, and important.
Overall: The Spectacular Now hits all the right notes and sets a high-water mark for teen romances.