"The Spectacular Now," showing as part of the US Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is a high school movie.
 
The signpost events are all there. 
 
There are booze-filled parties, a prom, a graduation, college applications, generational conflicts and budding love. 
 
Those signposts, though, are purely structural. They're load-bearing plotpoints that are used to support what is actually a revealing and emotional character study and an intense romantic relationship, in which the characters not-coincidentally happen to be teens.
 
When I walked out of "Spectacular Now," I tweeted that in recent Sundance terms, "The Spectacular Now" is "The First Time" meets "Smashed," a compliment that made a lot more sense when I remembered that "The Spectacular Now" was helmed by "Smashed" director James Ponsoldt.
 
In consecutive years, Ponsoldt has now showcased a confident ability to balance humor with emotional pain, which happens to also be a specialty of screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who broke out here a couple years back with "(500) Days of Summer." [Full disclosure requires me to mention that Neustadter and I served as arts section editors together at the University of Pennsylvania student newspaper back in the day.] That combination of amusement and anguish, of genre formula and freshness will leave some people scratching their heads, but it's equally likely to strike an uncomfortable [in a good way], honest chord. 
 
More after the break...
 
Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, "The Spectacular Now" stars Miles Teller as self-described life-of-the-party Sutter Keely,  a wise-cracking, academically underachieving high school senior whose ethos involves living only in the present and not dwelling on or planning for the future. That present moves into flux when his flawless, high-achieving girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breaks up with him, leaving Sutter with extra time for his favorite pastime, drinking. After one particularly aggressive bender, he wakes up on a strange front lawn staring up at Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a smart girl whose under-the-radar lack of confidence makes her his polar opposite.
 
Here's where I need to pause. 
 
Aimee has aspirations and dreams, but she's damaged herself. She's also a big fan of anime and doesn't realize that she's beautiful, even though she's played by Shailene Woodley, so you suspect that she's beautiful. And right now you're thinking, "Oh God. Manic Pixie Dream Girl." And if ever there were a cinematic young man in desperate need of a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, it's Sutter Keely. Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about "Spectacular Now" is that it doesn't go down that predictable path. Sutter is almost a charismatic black hole, even if he's in the midst of a spiral that could turn him from "class clown" to "class joke." There's more chance that Sutter will be Aimee's undoing than that she will be his salvation and he admits as  much. There are definite echos of the loving-yet-toxic relationship between Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead's characters in "Smashed."
 
Maybe "The Spectacular Now" could even work as a prequel to "Smashed," because it's more about the love story than anything else. There's a natural and believable intimacy between Sutter and Aimee, while Woodley and Teller have terrific chemistry that leaves you simultaneously rooting for this couple, but also cautious to the point of anxiety. 
 
Teller shouldn't count as a "revelation" for anybody who saw "Rabbit Hole," though this is a more layered and fully inhabited performance than that well-respected work. His Sutter is full of bombast, but Teller keeps his uncertainty and youth very near the surface. He also nails the character's self-destructive streak that will leave many viewers torn between embracing him and pushing him away. This entire movie hinges on Teller's performance he carries it capably. 
 
For Woodley, this is also a confirmatory performance more than an eye-opener. The gap between the poised, unaffected actress in "The Descendants" and the wooden star of "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" was so vast that any amount of skepticism was well-earned. After watching Woodley in "The Spectacular Now," the weight of blame shifts fairly conclusively to the ABC Family drama. Capable of shifting between wallflower and camera-friendly starlet with organic ease, there's a vulnerability and openness to Woodley that's well-matched with Teller's defensive wise-cracking.
 
The young leads are boosted by a strong supporting cast that includes the perpetually underutilized Larson, a "Smashed" reunion with Winstead and a nicely earnest Bob Odenkirk. Kyle Chandler is at his least Coach Taylor-y in  a key role. And people who watch the same TV as I do will be very pleased to see Kaitlyn Dever and a marvelously against-type Andre Royo.
 
As he did on "Smashed," Ponsoldt proves himself to be a director with an excellent eye for performance and an admirable willingness to experiment with seemingly incompatible tones and Neustadter and Weber's script gives him plenty of colors to work with. [I have no clue how much of the dialogue is from the book, but it's consistently sharp.] Ponsoldt still has some evolving to do as a visually stylist. "Smashed" was a little flat and unformed and while "The Spectacular Now" is a step forward, the Athens, Georgia setting could have been exploited more and several scenes, including the prom and a lakeside party, are weirdly underpopulated.
 
Or maybe the nebulous locations and the sparse crowd scenes are part of what seems to be Ponsoldt and company's key goal with "The Spectacular Now." It's a coming-of-age story that's recognizably an entry in the genre, but it doesn't feel derivative of Hughes or Apatow or Heckerling or Crowe. This is a movie I want to avoid over-praising because I think it will function best as a discovery and without inflated expectations. It's worth checking out and making up your own mind.