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(2013) (Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley) (R)

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Dramedy: A high school senior, who only lives in the here and now, starts dating a wallflower classmate, all while hoping to connect with his long-missing father.
Sutter Keely (MILES TELLER) is known as something of the class clown at his high school. No stranger to alcohol, he's used to partying, especially with his girlfriend, Cassidy (BRIE LARSON). But since he only lives in the here and now and shows no motivation or interest in proceeding beyond the 12th grade, she's broken up with him and is now dating their school's star athlete and class president, Marcus (DAYO OKENIYI).

One day, his classmate, Aimee Finicky (SHAILENE WOODLEY), finds him passed out on her lawn. They end up bonding when he helps her deliver papers on her mom's route, while she helps him find his car. She eventually agrees to tutor him in geometry, and he invites her to prom, which is a big deal as she's never had a boyfriend before.

His interest is platonic, what with his focus being on finding his long-absent father (KYLE CHANDLER) and learning why he left so many years ago. That's something his single mom (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH) thinks is a bad idea, a sentiment initially shared by his older, married sister, Holly (MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD). As Sutter continues on that quest, his relationship deepens with Aimee, with her falling hard for him. From that point on, he tries to figure out how to deal with that, all as his alcoholism and lack of drive threaten to derail his future.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
For anyone with a serious addiction, be that booze, drugs, gambling, sex or what have you, there's either the continuous downward spiral in such behavior that ultimately proves to be their demise, or some pivotal moment that opens their eyes, tips the scales, and sets them off on the road to recovery. Sometimes, it's an accident that harms or maybe even kills others. For some, it's their own near-death experience that shakes them out of their fog.

For Sutter Keely, it's waking up on the lawn of the home where his classmate Aimee Finicky lives, not knowing where he is or the location of his car that he drunkenly drove and then apparently lost the night before. It's not that such behavior startles him as it appears it's not far out of the norm. Nor is it that he accidentally harmed himself or someone else.

Instead, it's that he's met this 17-year-old who's unlike his fellow party-hearty crowd, including his former girlfriend, Cassidy, who's recently dumped him in favor of their school's star athlete and class president. While Sutter's type would usually dismiss her as some goody two shoes, especially after learning she's never had a boyfriend, he takes a liking to her and she to him despite their obvious differences.

Thus is the setup of "The Spectacular Now," a teen coming-of-age dramedy that's a breath of fresh air this summer of 2013 that's had multiplexes filled with overblown spectacle, massive budgets and superficiality ruling over any sort of true humanity or emotion. While it might not quite be Oscar caliber as a complete entity (the terrific leads notwithstanding), it's a solid and mostly believable offering about teens and their views of the world rather than the artificial and forced films we're used to seeing about such people.

Working from the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp, screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (who previously penned the imaginative and infectiously entertaining "(500) Days of Summer") have created characters that feel real and thus we care about them, warts, emotional baggage and all.

Sutter (Miles Keely) is something of the class clown, a smart kid with no ambition other than living in the here and now, some sort of booze nearly always in his large soda cup and ready to party until he passes out. Aimee (Shailene Woodley -- the teen daughter in "The Descendants") is a dreamer of what life will be like, even if said dreams, be that her fantasy pre-Sutter and then her wishes after their graduation, would garner raised eyebrows from adults in the real world.

He's on a possible path to self-destruction, no doubt fueled by his long absent father (Kyle Chandler) having left his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to raise him on her own and thus she forbids Sutter from any contact with his dad. Aimee, on the other hand, apparently lives with a controlling mom (never seen) who -- methods not delved into -- has ended up with her being a smart, boyfriend-less wallflower. As she starts to fall for him, Sutter enjoys her company but claims his friend's allegations of him rebounding with her are false. After all, his focus has increasingly turned to finding his dad and discovering why he left.

The eventual discovery gives him an eye-opening glimpse of his own and likely quite similar future. That sobering moment continues the film's second half transition from entertaining dramedy to more straight drama, a change that might leave some viewers wondering what happened and why. While it does take some fun out of the proceedings and some wind from its cinematic sails, director James Ponsoldt thankfully never loses control and thus the film doesn't get too dark or depressing.

The performances from the leads are nothing short of outstanding, with award nominations likely in the cards for both Teller ("21 & Over," "Rabbit Hole") and Woodley who proves that her winning performance alongside George Clooney two years ago wasn't a fluke. They both create sympathetic characters via fine little touches and nuances -- rather than the usual array of quirks, snarkiness and snappy dialogue that usually accompany teen characters on the screen -- that make them come off as the real deal and thus hook the viewer into their pains, desires and so on.

While the film has on odd misstep in the third act -- involving an accident that comes out of the blue, as it should, but is then mostly brushed off when it should and could have been an enormously pivotal moment -- and feels the need to wrap things up with a tidy bow that should please viewers but feels too conventional when a conclusion moments before that would have been fine and felt truer to what preceded it, I found the overall offering to my liking. Although it might not be a crowd pleaser along the lines of "(500) Days of Summer," the film does feel like a slice of real life featuring teens on the verge of figuring out their place in the world. And for that, along with terrific performances from the leads, "The Spectacular Now" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed July 31, 2013 / Posted August 9, 2013

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