PARK CITY - One of the benefits of staying longer than the opening weekend of the Sundance Film Festival is that you can catch up with films towards the end of the festival that have picked up buzz over the previous days.  As soon as "The Spectacular Now" made its public premiere, it became a priority for me to see during the festival, and it more than lived up to the early word.  Written by the same writers as "(500) Days Of Summer" and directed by the filmmaker behind last year's "Smashed," I think "The Spectacular Now" is better than either of those films, and it delivers a strong emotional punch in a smart overall package.

Based on a novel by Tim Tharp, "The Spectacular Now" tells the story of Sutter Keely, played here by Miles Teller, who is coasting through his high school career on a cloud of innate charm and alcohol fumes.  He is the life of the party, and that's the problem.  Constantly drunk, he seems to believe that there is no reason to think about the future at all.  He is all about the moment, all about the sensation.  As the film begins, his long-time girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) has reached the breaking point, and she can't do it anymore.  She knows how charming he is, but she also knows that he's dragging her down, and she wants more.  There is a strong tie between the two of them, and as much as it pains her, she can't continue to let him dictate the way they both seem to be failing.  Once Sutter finds himself on his own, he is rudderless, and he spends a lot of energy trying to convince himself that none of it matters, that it's okay that she left him.  His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has a hard time really communicating with him, and the unspoken space between them has to do with Sutter's long-absent father.  His older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is out of the house, married, and she married into money, doing her best to leave behind her upbringing.


When Sutter starts to notice Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), she's mainly an opportunity for him, a way he can pass a math class.  She's a shy smart girl, and when he pays attention to her, he has no sense of how much it means to her.  She knows who he is and he represents a freedom and an abandon that she wishes she had in her life.  She sees this romanticized version of who Sutter is, while Sutter sees the real Aimee in a way that no one else does.  Without realizing it's happening, Sutter falls for her, and he finds himself unsure how to handle this girl, so beautiful on the inside, so willing to love him with all his faults intact and up front.

Woodley was great in "The Descendants," and what makes this performance so surprising is how completely different she is.  There's not a hit of the anger or the sort of clenched personality that made that character so distinct.  Aimee is this really gentle, sweet soul, and what really makes the film so affecting is seeing how vulnerable she makes herself.  Do we ever really love with the same sort of selfless intensity that people love at that age, in that first bloom?  Everything about Sutter, she accepts it as part of him.  His drinking, for example.  Instead of trying to change him, which is one of the things that slowly but surely broke Cassidy's heart, Aimee gets a flask of her own and starts drinking the way he does.  It's a really sad character study, and I'd say the special jury prize that Teller and Woodley were awarded at Sundance was deserving.  They do exquisite work etching the slow co-dependent dance that these two do, and I think they're honestly some of the most promising young performers working.  Teller was heartbreaking in "Rabbit Hole," and this is an even more mature performance, rich and nuanced, and the way he allows the pain that obviously drives Sutter to slowly assert itself is impressive.

Special mention must be made of Kyle Chandler, who shows up late in the film just in time to make it really really hurt, and it's nice to see someone cast him as something besides yet another variation on Coach Taylor.  I think James Ponsoldt's made a big jump forward here, and the film's greatest strength is that it feels so spontaneous, so casually plotted, but there's a great deal of control in the way it builds to what ends up being a very powerful conclusion.  I will say that that this year's festival ended up being a very clear illustration of just how often festival films fall back on vague endings, and it's often a cop-out, a cliche.  Here, it feels earned because of the uncertainty that is part of any life decision you make at 18 or 19 years old.  All you can do is hope, and "The Spectacular Now" does a great job of capturing that moment when you stop living for the empty sensation of the moment and start thinking about the future, and more specifically about a future that includes someone else. 

It's a lovely film, and it's one to look forward to later this year when A24 releases it.