The Spectacular Now ★★★½

“The best thing about now is that there’s another one tomorrow.”

On one level, there’s no real reason why James Ponsoldt‘s Sundance hit should stand out in an overpopulated genre: it deals in such genre staples as the geeky girl getting the popular guy and the guy being made over by her less obvious charms in turn. But the subtle, earthy approach Ponsoldt takes to this small story makes it feel bigger, especially when it is complicated by the popular guy’s alcoholism, and especially when the leads are as committed and revelatory as Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller are here, and the support is as strong (Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Since ‘The Spectacular Now’ takes a couple of melodramatic turns and never strays too far off the expected life lessons path, it’s a rare feat that it feels so continually fresh and authentic.

Ponsoldt’s picture is self-possessed, mature, and deeply patient, but it’s perhaps not at the pace some are accustomed to. At ninety-five minutes, ‘The Spectacular Now’ feels closer to two hours, and that’s both to its benefit and minor detriment. Marked by long takes (one steady-cam shot is seven minutes long), Ponsoldt puts the emphasis on his leads and considering how good his cast is, it’s a smart play. Woodley is terrific and painfully genuine, and across the board, the entire cast (which also includes Andre Royo from “The Wire” and “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk) imbues an authenticity that adds to the greater whole.

And while Woodley may steal the show, there’s no doubt that the film belongs to Teller’s Sutter. By this point, Teller had gone toe-to-toe with Nicole Kidman in the criminally underrated ‘Rabbit Hole,’ and he’s effortless here. A good-time kid smarting from his breakup with his girlfriend and determined to live in an eternal present despite his half-assed attempts at filling out college applications, Sutter is also haunted by the absence of his father. Blaming his hardworking mother for the long-ago dissolution of their family, he demands that she allow him to visit the father he hasn’t seen for years and whose phone number and address she refuses to give him. Along the way, he takes up with Woodley’s never-been-kissed loner, who represents an unlikely choice for the popular Sutter, but the two quickly strike a bond, based, among other things, on missing fathers and a need to stand up to their mothers.

‘The Spectacular Now’ is wise beyond its years, charismatic, measured, and authentic in its depiction of the pains, confusions, and insecurities of the teenage experience. While its deliberate rhythm may prove to be a harder sell among the teen crowd, it’s a valuable and honest film that’s worth the investment.