There’s a lot that’s safe and familiar about James Ponsoldt’s new coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now, in which Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley play a pair of high school sweethearts trying to plan (or, in Teller’s case, avoid planning) for life after graduation. I was particularly let down by the way in which this otherwise thoughtful and intelligent film blasts through most of the plot developments on which its last act hinges; it feels like it runs out of the patience needed to give those emotional beats the requisite weight. But it’s made worthwhile by the astounding naturalistic performances of Teller and Woodley, who took home a joint acting award at Sundance earlier this year for their work. Teller’s Sutter Keeley is a good-natured joker whose outward affability masks woundedness and a fear of abandonment; he’s good at bolstering the self-esteem of his friends—he even gives friendly advice to the classmate who has begun dating his ex-girlfriend—but he’s wracked with self-doubt, drinks constantly, and fears he’ll turn out like the alcoholic father who abandoned the family. Woodley’s Aimee Finickey meets him for the first time while on her morning paper route after he passes out drunk on a stranger’s lawn. Aimee’s inner conflicts get less screen time than Sutter’s, but they’re no less complicated; her friendliness and optimism often shade troublingly into passivity, and we wince at the ease with which she forgives away her mistreatment at the hands of those around her. She’s a particularly well-drawn and heartbreaking character, the kind of young person whose strengths—openness, generosity, responsibility—often set her up to be taken advantage of, an irony that the film acknowledges only glancingly.
It’s a rare thing to see teenagers in movies played with such rawness and complexity of emotion. The weaknesses of the film’s plot don’t impinge upon Teller and Woodley’s intimate dialogue scenes together, many of which are done in impressive long takes and which are embroidered with beautiful improvisatory touches. Teller is very good here; I first noticed him several years ago when he gave a scene-stealing performance in Rabbit Hole, playing the neighbor boy responsible for accidentally hitting and killing Nicole Kidman’s child with his car. He was strikingly understated in his scenes with Kidman, and if his performance here is somewhat less impressive it may be because The Spectacular Now calls for bigger emotion. Woodley, on the other hand, is even better here than she was in Alexander Payne’s The Descendents, for which she received much attention back in 2011. While Teller works out Sutter Keeley’s demons from center stage, Woodley’s Aimee lurks more quietly on the sidelines. Her character is less developed but vastly more interesting, and played with arguably more subtlety. Don’t be fooled by her self-effacing smile or her cheery, lilting voice: there’s real depth there.