Hey, Hollywood can still do romance! Even since the marketeers worked out that the kiss kiss bang bang formula could be profitably split, with bang bang movies getting wide releases and the kiss kisses sold only to that slim niche demographic called “American women,” movie love stories had gotten frustratingly rote and maudlin, the passions of Nicholas Sparks’s characters taken as the given that drama is built from rather than inherently dramatic themselves. You, reading this, have almost certainly at some point gotten together (or not quite managed to yet—hang in there!) with somebody to love. Why is your experience, the hesitations and confusions and surges of shared feeling, all so much more interesting than the scenarios screenwriters manage to sell these days?
In The Spectacular Now, two kids as specific as you are fall into slow, uncertain love, their hearts filling up with each other but not always synchronously. You know that person you made out with one weekend in high school, the one whose kiss made the world fall away—but who breezed by like you didn’t exist during Monday’s passing period? There’s plenty of that here, but with one key thing that really would have helped back then: a clear sense of the psychology involved, thanks to (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, working from the novel by Tim Tharp. These lovers are not a natural match, and when apart they have to dare themselves to keep going—it would be so much simpler for Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a Georgia small town’s king of beers, to party on without Aimee Finicky, a college-bound tutor-type whose wallflower-to-beauty transformation isn’t ridiculous in the way of Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That.
Shailene Woodley’s shy Aimee dresses down, foregoes makeup, and heads to school with bigger things to worry about than teen beauty—popular high school boys truly might be dumb enough not to notice her until the day she turns up fetchingly tanned and tank-topped at a campground kegger. She’s a tender, moving creation, marvelously played by Woodley, who radiates an eager uncertainty, that young person’s cautiousness about believing that someone might like her in that way dueling with the urge to get to it. “Don’t laugh,” she tells Sutter, touchingly, just before she pulls off her T-shirt—as if anything under there might disappoint the boy who’s after her.
The movie is the boy’s story, of course, as serious film romances unfailingly are. Fortunately, this boy is a slothful charmer, as drunk on his own good humor as he is on the contents of his flask. He’s the kind of movable fiesta a young Tom Hanks or Bill Murray could have played, and Teller is excellent—he’s a breeze that stiffens into something more powerful without ever seeming to try to blow harder. Unlike his ’80s comedy forbears, this ambitionless slob is treated as a dismaying riddle rather than a beacon of everydude honesty—his challenge isn’t to triumph over the stock-type snobs, it’s to shape all his likable traits into a self with something to offer the adult world.
But first he has to get over the longtime girlfriend who dumped him senior year. Spirited drunk driving leaves him sprawled on Aimee’s lawn; even though they’re in the same graduating class, he doesn’t know her name. He learns it, though. Director James Ponsoldt gives us long, loose, single-shot courtship scenes, each a marvel of staging and performance. The best build to the firsts: a kiss and a loss of virginity. In the former, experienced Sutter is an expertly casual seducer, taking serious interest in the life of this girl he’s discovered and then teasing out what Conway Twitty would call the want-to in her eyes. In the latter, it’s Aimee who urges things along, demonstrating that she’s been a virgin not out of fear or morality but because she just hasn’t found someone she wanted to be with yet.
The lovers face complications, as lovers do, but the movie never falls into formula. The obstacles here are immaturity, Sutter’s desire to continue being his school’s drunken clown rather than a grown-up who might have something to offer Aimee a few years down the road. There are showdowns and disappointments with parents, an awkward dinner party, and some pressure from Aimee’s and Sutter’s BFFs to call things off, but none of this minor stuff is trumped up into the temporary deal-breaker demanded by rom-com plotting. The relationship finds its own, slow shape, uncertain when these two are apart but prickling in the air between them when they’re together. Even the crises that power the final half-hour seem honest, and the film’s only false note is one of its last, the one time the filmmakers indulge in romantic-comedy nonsense in order to sweeten a moment: Not only is it suddenly apparent these teens live in a world without Facebook, but where is it written that young lovers in the last third of a movie can’t just call each other?