In the opening moments of “The Spectacular Now,” 17-year-old Sutter is trying to bluff his way through the infamous personal essay on a college application. He is fortified by drink as he tries out charm, wit, cynicism and insult — everything but honesty.
It’s a perfect start for this culturally astute drama, spiked with enough comedy to make it splendidly intoxicating to watch.
In movies, coming-of-age has become convenient shorthand for the crush of stories about the high school crowd — sci-fi, drama, comedy, horror, take your pick. That’s made it far too easy to lose touch with how complicated the sorting out of impending adulthood can be.
Until something like “The Spectacular Now” comes along to remind us.
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as high school seniors Sutter and Aimee, bring such an authentic face of confidence and questioning, indifference and need, pain and denial, friendship and first love, that it will take you back to that time if you’re no longer there, and light a path if you are.
This particular path is a treacherous one. Sutter and Aimee are forced to navigate the not-so-spectacular now — when teen alcoholism is as much a fact of life as broken and blended families are the norm. They are ordinary kids, bruised in ordinary ways, growing up in an ordinary suburb.
Essentially they represent the mean of the teenage experience that Tim Tharp’s novel captured so smartly. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who brought a buoyancy and pique to "(500) Days of Summer,” have done fine work in adapting for the screen, reverent of the source, unafraid to make it their own.
The topic was a natural for director James Ponsoldt. The ways in which overindulgence frames a downfall, defines a relationship, resists a rescue, is a specialty of his. In 2006, the issue was aging alcoholics in “Off the Black” with Nick Nolte. In 2012, he tackled a married couple united by spirits, then divided by sobriety in the excellent “Smashed.”
As good as the earlier films are, Ponsoldt was only doing spadework for his best yet, his tenderest.
Sutter is heading toward graduation conflicted about the future. He’s got a sarcastic take on growing up, an effortless charm that gets him around most scrapes and a flask full of whiskey to help him live in the “now.” His preferred state of existence is buzzed.
He’s a popular kid with a reputation for being the life of the party; by the time we meet Sutter the whiskey is starting to get in the way. The film will ease through a series of typical teenage issues that hound him. The teachers who see his intelligence squandered. Mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) even more frustrated that her smart son is failing at everything. Their fights always get back to her refusal to give Sutter a number for his idolized absentee dad (Kyle Chandler). His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) is beautiful but with ever-higher expectations. His best friend Ricky (Masam Holden) is his anchor and Aimee is a new project on the horizon.
Aimee is her own pack of problems. A straight-A student, sweet and pretty enough, but not in a way that anyone notices. She’s got a habit of thinking she’s not worth much and a tendency to let the world run over her. Sutter intends to change that.
They meet — officially — about 5:30 one morning when Aimee finds Sutter passed out in the front yard of a house on her paper route. Aimee thinks he’s dead. When he’s not, they finish the route together. She drives; he throws. Both talk, through and around things large and small, as teenagers are wont to do.
It begins an unlikely friendship that might be mistaken for the first chapter of a possible love story. There are a lot of “ifs” in Sutter’s world.
Beyond the girls, grades and graduation, “The Spectacular Now” is interested in the idea of Sutter’s acceptance — by college, peers, parents, bosses and most significantly and hardest to come by, himself. The turning point will be the teen’s reconnection with his dad. A darker-than-usual turn for Chandler, the “Friday Night Lights” perfect father figure dives deep to make the most of the disappointments he delivers.
Woodley, whose breakout came in 2011 as the rebellious teenage daughter holding her own opposite George Clooney in “The Descendants,” shows a very different — diffident — side in Aimee. The actress finds the right balance between the insecurities and pragmatism of a kid who knows whatever success comes will be of her own making. Woodley radiates a gentle warmth as Aimee that is simply magnetic on-screen.
But this is Teller’s film. The actor, so badly used in spring’s miserable “21 & Over,” has a breakout performance in his teen at a crossroads. The actor infuses Sutter with such charisma that it’s difficult not to forgive his many stumbles even when no one else — except Aimee — does.
Teller allows Sutter’s decline, like the booze, to sink in slowly so we can see all that is buried beneath the swigs and shots.
‘The Spectacular Now’
MPAA rating: R for alcohol use, language and some sexuality, all involving teens
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles