The great Zen puzzle of life is how to balance living in the moment, mindful and focused on now, versus the need to plan ahead for and worry about all the vexing tomorrows ahead. This is the underlying theme of the wonderful new coming-of-age movie “The Spectacular Now,” which indeed is spectacular in its satisfying exploration of the lives of two high school seniors, Sutter and Aimee.

For Sutter, who is always the life of the party – charming, cute, clever, self-possessed – tomorrow hardly exists. He is happy just to be in the spectacular now, basking in the glory of his popularity,especially when he has his flask handy, because a nice buzz always seems to enhance the moment for him.

The only apparent flaw in his charmed life is getting dumped by his girlfriend, who is looking for a more serious relationship. “You’ve got to live in the moment,” he protests, to which she responds, “I want more than a moment. I want a future.” The movie opens as he ponders using the breakup to answer the college entrance essay question he has to write: “Describe a failure or hardship you have endured and how you dealt with it.” It hardly seems like much of a hardship, though, because he is sure to find someone else.

However, a closer look into Sutter’s life reveals more serious flaws, which the egregious charm and binge drinking are meant to cover up. There are his raw fingernails, bitten down to the quick. The students who think he is a “joke.” And more seriously, the fact that he has not seen his dad since he was a kid and that his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh), busy with her nursing job, hardly has time for him.

One morning he wakes up passed out on the lawn of Aimee’s house. Aimee is a bit of a wallflower, shy but sweet, cute but not gorgeous, friendly but not gregarious. She has plans for the future and a path to get there that includes college. She might be Sutter’s opposite.

But opposites attract, and invariably they are drawn together. They travel the customary path of many teen romance movies – discovering how they can help each other, falling in love, wondering if their romance is “right,” and then breaking up hard. Thanks to a fine, unsentimental
script by Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter from a novel by Tim Tharp, and sharp direction from James Ponsoldt, their journey never seems stale. The two actors, Miles Teller as Sutter and Shailene Woodley as Aimee, are utterly convincing.

As a result, we are crushed by their breakup. And when Sutter, crestfallen after finally reconnecting with his feckless dad, starts spiraling down a path of self-destruction, we care.

In the great Zen puzzle of movie endings – how to balance anger and forgiveness, hardship and hopefulness – this one lands just right. It is a worthy finish to an altogether satisfying film, one of the best of the year.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...