TIE at the movies: The Spectacular Now

Yeah, I’m stealing a page from my RBC buddy Keith Humphreys, amateur movie review par excellence.

Emailing with a high school friend, I suddenly recalled a cringe-worthy incident from more than thirty years ago. Riding my bike around the neighborhood, I turned a corner was surprised to encountered my classmate Debbie Chessler. She flashed her beautiful smile, and said, “Hi, Harold.” I responded: “Umm, well, umm, umm, hi.” Since this wasn’t going well, I commenced my exit strategy. Stammering “Sorry, I’ve got to go,” I pedaled furiously away.

In such moments of befuddled high school crush, I could have used a fun-loving wingman like Sutter Keely, the central character in the lovely film, The Spectacular Now, played with great panache by Miles Teller. (The practicalities of movie-making require particular suspension of disbelief. Teller looks old enough to anchor his own MSNBC show.)

Never rent a powder-blue prom tux….

My wife and I saw this film last weekend with our own two wonderful teen daughters. It’s one of the loveliest and (in its way) most serious romantic dramas I’ve seen this year. I was especially struck by the way this film took respected every young person that passed through the frame. We are given to understand that real things are at stake. Important things are happening. Young men and women are trying to face real decisions with real consequences for the rest of their lives.

This is a love story between Sutter and his girlfriend Aimee, who is played with winning charm by Shailene Woodley. Teen romances are often played for laughs or for their titillating possibilities. Spectacular Now reminds us that high school romance is more substantial and worthy than that. As adults, we carry beautiful and painful memories that can remain surprisingly raw even after decades. It’s so easy to forget this when it comes time for our own kids to explore their own similar experiences.

The depth of this film surprises because adult romantic comedies that comprise its chief commercial competitors are so lame and insubstantial. The standard rom-com algorithm presents two romantic leads separated by human and circumstantial barriers from achieving their true love. The human barriers (a.k.a. romantic rivals, other partners or fiancés) tend to be brutally dispatched. Apparently, it would undermine the feel-good viewing experience to do otherwise.

Thus, you want Meg Ryan to dump that straight-laced fiancé in Sleepless in Seattle. Rachel McAdams is luminous as Owen Wilson’s fiancé in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Yet her cardboard character is a spoiled and petulant child, whom Wilson would have jettisoned sooner if she weren’t so beautiful and if he weren’t such a nice guy.

Near the beginning of Spectacular Now, Sutter gets dumped by his sensual girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Sutter still has feelings for her. At first, we presume the breakup is the product of a charming misunderstanding, Sutter’s harmless good deed as a wingman for his best friend Ricky gone awry.

Yet as the film progresses, it turns out that Cassidy has more substantial reasons to move on. She still has feelings for Sutter. He’s more charismatic and fun than her straight-arrow, idealistic, and focused new boyfriend Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), a Christian basketball star in the David Robinson mold. Sutter and Cassidy enjoy some fabulous romantic afternoons. Yet Cassidy realized that he’s too immersed in the spectacular now. At least for the moment, he is not going anywhere, and she cares too much about her future to embrace that.

Ironically, the movie’s one cardboard character is Sutter’s father, a dissipated sleazy alcoholic played against type by Friday Night Light’s Kyle Chandler. He’s at once the horrid father who is at the root of Sutter’s difficulties, and the nightmarish living image of what Sutter might all-too-easily become.

As a parent, I’m tempted to cringe at the matter-of-fact premise of pervasive, often-casual teen sexual activity. Yet the fact that Sutter and Aimee had sex may be the 7th-most important thing going on in this story. The sex itself wasn’t tawdry or reckless. There was real tenderness and respect expressed there. Condoms were duly deployed. I don’t mind my girls seeing that.

We are rooting for these two appealing people to end up together. We see in them the wonderful adults and partners they will hopefully become. Aimee is wonderfully appealing. Sutter is kind and funny. He cares deeply about others. Someday he will make a good partner, husband, and father.

Someday–but not today. He’s several girls’ favorite ex-boyfriend. He knows why as much as anyone. He worries that he’s no good for Aimee, and he’s probably right. He does nice things for her. Yet his recklessness contributes to near tragedy that luckily only results in her broken arm. He has an awful fondness for whiskey and 7. He fails an algebra class he needs to graduate. Their relationship nudges her to drink.

Near the end of the film, Aimee invites him to move with her to Philadelphia where she plans to get a job and go to school. He agrees to go, but decides that his real act of love is to let her go. His real motives are actually more ambivalent than that. He would have to make a major commitment and get serious in a way he’s not built to really do.

He resolves things in a cloddish, rather unforgivable teenage way: He stands her up at the bus station where she’s waiting for the Philadelphia coach. But this is a romantic movie. So, hopefully and romantically, Sutter reconsiders. In the final scene, he’s taken the long ride and is there to intercept Aimee as she descends a lecture-hall’s concrete steps. She’s startled to see him. The credits roll.

Things are rightly left unresolved. Many people assume the film had a happily-ever-after ending. I’m not so sure. And maybe the real happily-ever-after ending isn’t what we believe it is.

If Sutter were my son, I would tell him to get on the road and not to lose that girl. Unfortunately for him, my fatherly advice to Aimee would be equally emphatic: Have a wonderful day. Then send him packing.

I like this good-hearted young man. He’s just too much of a risk. Like I was at his age, he needs too much building, too much internal repair. There’s too much of a chance that he’ll get listless and bored. There’s too great a risk that his drinking problem will damage surrounding lives.

Teen romances are wonderful and sweet—not least because they can’t and really shouldn’t go much further. These have special permission within our life narratives to end without being labeled failures.

Maybe the happily-ever-after endings unfold years or decades later, with other partners. If we’re lucky, the missteps, the joys, and the experiments of these relationships teach us how to love, what we want out of our partners and out of life. They keep us going as we make many difficult transitions to our adult lives.

Maybe someday at Starbucks, a graying Aimee might spot a passer-by who reminds her of someone from a long time ago. She might smile at a nice memory, and think: “Sutter Keely–I hope he’s happy.”

I’d like to think such things happen. I have some evidence that they do.


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