When I put together my very first draft of the ranking of the Top 100, I had the book Spectacular Now just a few slots out of the ranking. The movie had just come out, but I figured it wouldn’t really change my opinion of The Spectacular Now as a whole.
Then I finally got around to seeing it, and it was my favorite movie I saw in 2013, and so here we are.
The Spectacular Now — a young adult novel by Tim Tharp and a movie directed by James Ponsoldt, starring Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller — tells the story of the teenage lovable drunk Sutter Keeley and his unlikely friendship with the meek, straight-laced Aimee Finecky.
The story is told in Sutter’s voice, and he’s the biggest strength of the story. Sutter has the most interesting, distinct voice for a YA novel since Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Teller gives a FANTASTIC, lights-out performance as Sutter in the film, embodying the recklessness and charm of the character. (Seriously Oscar-worthy, in my opinion.)
Aimee, meanwhile, is nearly as interesting (if occasionally troublesome from a storytelling perspective). She’s naive but somewhat cynical without realizing it. More than anything, she’s a character who has accepted her defeated circumstances in spite of a lingering creative spirit.
The Spectacular Now is, when you strip it down, a poignant romantic comedy. But it never quite goes the direction you expect. Foreshadowing is yanked out like a rug from under you, pulling you one place just when you thought it was about to go another. There are plenty of twists on the typical tropes of this kind of story, making the whole experience feel fresh.
Consider the “meet cute,” a staple of pretty much every romantic comedy. In a typical high school comedy, the characters would bump into each other and help each other pick up their papers, or something innocent like that.
In The Spectacular Now, Aimee and Sutter meet when Aimee wakes up a passed out Sutter on a neighbor’s lawn. Sutter had gone on a bender the night before and had crashed his car while driving home blackout drunk.
Some protagonist, huh?
Tharp — and the movie — do a brilliant job of showing Aimee and Sutter simultaneously bringing each other down and lifting each other up. Sutter’s hedonistic life steers Aimee off the tracks, and her sweet helplessness makes it easy for him to indulge.
But Aimee’s unerring faith in the greatness of Sutter also forces him to think beyond his current, basic life. Sutter’s vivacity and confidence wake Aimee out of the stupor of her crappy family life.
It’s sweet, but also a train wreck of drama waiting to happen, particularly as Sutter starts to careen off course again in the second half of the novel. You wonder if the two are going to save each other or destroy each other.
I won’t say anything about the ending other than that — true to the story that precedes it — it avoids a predictable, clean resolution. Many hate it, and most who have seen the movie find that version’s ending slightly less bleak than the book’s ending.
Whenever I read a fiction book, I write a very short review of my feelings, and here’s what I had to say the first time I read The Spectacular Now: “The ending sucks, but that’s definitely the point.”
The movie sands off some of the most unconventional and prickly edges of the story. One change that I think is for the better: the excision of a sordid story from Aimee’s past. That was a bit of pity-inducing darkness that I think the story is better without.
The movie is wonderfully directed and acted, and it serves as a great standalone film. My biggest adaptational gripe is that the tone and nature of Aimee’s character is off. Aimee is unremarkable and reserved in the book; the beautiful Shailene Woodley is not those at all. It almost (but not quite) undercuts the nature of their relationship — shy and beautiful is less interesting or believable than shy and plain. Woodley is talented and charming enough to pull it off.
The movie might be the better way to consume the story overall, even if it lacks a few of the layers of the novel. It’s just easier to be sucked in by tense or emotional moments of the story, like a pivotal encounter at a bar with a figure from Sutter’s past or a wonderful encounter between Sutter and Aimee at a party that involves playfully screaming profanities. (The latter is one of my favorite scenes in the film.)
I haven’t even touched on the side characters — including Bubbles from The Wire as a math teacher! — but all of them add interesting dimensions and conflicts to the story.
In short, The Spectacular Now, both the movie and the book, are gems that I really connected with. The novel in particular is unconventional and surprising, but the film is more gripping overall.