Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley easily rank among the most promising young actors working today. Woodley earned an Oscar nomination for her work in “The Descendants,” while Teller has used his dozen or so film roles to etch out a charming, surprisingly complex screen persona. Both actors do their best work yet in “The Spectacular Now,” the touching, singular teen romance from director James Ponsoldt.
Sutter Keely (Teller) is a charismatic hurricane, regularly participating in after-school-special-worthy binge drinking in the midst of an intense downward spiral after breaking up with his girlfriend Cassidy, who is played by Brie Larson. After a particularly rambunctious night of shenanigans, he wakes up on an unfamiliar lawn with Aimee Finecky (Woodley) standing over him, and something compels him to take an interest in her.
Keely has this undeniable boozy likability to him. Teller’s performance is fascinating, playing Keely as a self-destructive teen who is unsure of how to react to someone who sees value in him. Woodley portrays Finecky as a timid girl breaking out of her shell for the first time, perfectly embodying the lovestruck high schooler, from the googly eyes and awkward giggles to the unguarded vulnerability and warmth. The fragile, tender intimacy that Woodley and Teller build with their marvelous, stunningly deep performances gives the film its most effective moments.
The film’s supporting cast perfectly complements both performers, and even small roles from Bob Odenkirk and Andre Royo leave impressions. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who starred in Ponsoldt’s “Smashed”) does subtle, affecting work as Keely’s sister, and Larson is appealing and purposeful as his ex-girlfriend.
The script from Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter is a simply told, gorgeously observed exploration of the way people’s personalities imprint on and bleed into each other, filtered through a legitimately heartfelt teen romance. Ponsoldt uses long, talky tracking shots to build Keely and Finecky’s relationship, and perfectly captures the spontaneity, beauty and heart-wrenching stakes of being young and falling in love.
What really makes “The Spectacular Now” stand out is the profound emotions it’s able to evoke. Teller and Woodley’s chemistry and Ponsoldt’s unwavering tonal control over every moment charm you into investing in their relationship before the film delves into unexpectedly dark territory, making every messy emotion or harrowing development all the more immediate and gripping. While some of the developments in the third act feel a bit contrived or unconvincing, the uniformly excellent performances keep things compelling, and Teller deserves commendation for how tender he makes a scene that could have come across as overly dramatic.
The honesty and naturalism that the film brings to its central romance, coupled with the enormously moving performances, make “The Spectacular Now” an authentic, powerful film, and one of the year’s best. While Ponsoldt’s smart, strong direction makes a great case for watching more of his work, if Teller and Woodley continue to bring such assured depth and charisma to the screen, they’ll quickly become some of the most essential actors of our generation.