Shailene Woodley-Miles Teller-680

The Spectacular Now is that rare bird, a serious film about teenagers. I haven’t felt so swept up in the emotional lives of young people since The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Like that picture, this one is based on a novel (by Tim Tharp) and features superior performances by every hand-picked member of its ensemble, led by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley.

Teller plays Sutter Keeley, a high-school senior who doesn’t take anything or anyone seriously—his hard-working mom, his well-meaning teacher, his grades or even his relationship with his sexy girlfriend. Part of his goofball demeanor derives from the fact that he’s almost always drinking, hiding his booze in flask or a soft-drink cup. Then he chances to meet Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a sheltered girl who’s never had a boyfriend. She’s got a tough home life, a demanding work schedule, and falls under Sutter’s spell—even though he tells himself he’s just helping her come out of her shell.

These are characters we don’t often see on screen: ordinary kids who have no sense of self-worth. How they affect each other’s decisions, and ultimate destiny, is at the heart of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay, brought to life with admirable honesty and restraint by James Ponsoldt (who made the equally worthwhile Smashed). How the director and his youthful stars achieved such seemingly effortless honesty, under the scrutiny of a camera, is hard to say but easy to admire. Teller and Woodley have done good work before, but these performances are on a very high plane.

The same can be said for Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who starred in Smashed), Bob Odenkirk and the other actors who make every moment of their brief screen time count. A layered screenplay and a simpatico director help a lot, but everyone involved in The Spectacular Now seems to have understood what was at stake for their characters.

I hope good reviews and word-of-mouth lead people to this little gem.