Sutter Keely and Aimee Finecky could hardly be more different.
Sutter spends his days drinking whiskey, bedding his girlfriend, drinking more whiskey and smooth-talking his way through conflict—except the one he has with his geometry teacher who, oddly, expects more of him. Sutter is the life of the party, and there's nary a party where he can't be found.
Aimee, in contrast, is a bookish, makeup-free introvert who's never kissed a boy and has read a whole lot of sci-fi graphic novels. She's less interested in the moment and more focused on the future. Blessed with an earnest innocence, Aimee isn't the kind of girl Sutter's noticed before.
But then Sutter's girlfriend, Cassidy, dumps him, prompting a bender that deposits him, passed out, in a random front yard. It's Aimee who finds him there. She's delivering newspapers, and he offers to help her in exchange for a ride.
She's not interested in a helper, but Sutter's charm proves irresistible. In that moment, a friendship is born.
It's not long before Aimee's tutoring Sutter in geometry, and inviting the big man on their high school campus into her private world. Sutter's smitten with the person he finds there, someone who thinks about where she's going … and someone who's never had a boyfriend.
That's something Sutter's quickly becoming, never mind that his best bud, Ricky, keeps warning him it's not going to end well. Indeed, in his occasional moments of semi-sobriety, commitmophobia does begin sweeping over Sutter—a tendency he especially exhibits whenever Cassidy is nearby.
Still, Aimee's wide-eyed innocence proves a soothing influence on the wild child … as the wild child begins to rile up her here and now.
Sutter's a ladies' man who has the world by the tail. Right? Wrong. As the film and his relationship with Aimee progresses, we learn that he's anything but. In fact, his two signature traits—his unflappable good nature and the fact that he's constantly drinking—are merely symptoms of his desperation. We see that beneath all his Don Juan bravado beats the heart of troubled teen who longs to know why his father abandoned their family … and why his mother refuses to let him contact a deadbeat dad he hasn't seen in years.
When Sutter meets Aimee, he's intrigued by their differences, especially her ability to look forward to the future. He, conversely, is a staunch proponent of "living in the moment." At prom he gushes, "I'm so happy. This is our night. This is the youngest we're ever going to be." But the film slowly dismantles all that, revealing a young man who's terrified of growing up, not knowing who he'll be or how he'll fit into an adult world.
As for Aimee, she's got some growing to do too. Like, for instance, figuring out how to tell her domineering mother that she's going to go to college even though her mom's determined to keep her tossing papers forever. And it's Sutter who talks her into finally confronting her mother (albeit with a lot of profanity infused into his coaching).
It turns out that Sutter's mom is keeping him away from his dad for good reason. And when Sutter goes around her and contacts the man anyway, he ends up getting rejected all over again. It's a crushing blow. But when he cries to his work-weary mother (who often pulls multiple shifts to support her family) that no one has ever loved him, she responds, "Sutter, you are so wrong. Do you hear me? You are so wrong. … You are not your father. That man never loved anyone but himself. … But you, you love everybody."
It proves an important moment for Sutter to admit that he's lived in fear his whole life. "I've always been afraid of failure, of letting people down, hurting people," he says in a college application. So, he says, he "shut out the pain, shut out everything, good and bad." In the end, he modifies his philosophy, saying, "It's fine to live in the now. But the best thing about now is that there's another one tomorrow. I'm going to start making them count."
Elsewhere, Cassidy rightfully distances herself from Sutter because she realizes he's a dangerous influence in her life. That geometry teacher strives valiantly to motivate him. And Sutter's boss tries to get him to stop drinking, hinging his ongoing employment on it.
Sutter sarcastically laments that if his father hadn't abandoned their family, "I'd be president of my Sunday school class."
Sutter and Cassidy have sex in a scene that features explicit movements. We glimpse her bare back. Sutter and Aimee consummate their relationship after she initiates. We see her in a bra as they make out. And when they move beyond that, her ongoing verbal coaching narrates the awkward intercourse that follows. There's a brief moment of (shadowy) breast nudity, and explicit motions are again shown.
Sutter tries to engineer a situation that will end in sex for Ricky and another girl—an attempt that backfires on him when Cassidy finds him parking with the girl and thinks he's cheating. Even after his relationship with Aimee begins, he sweet-talks his way into going over to see Cassidy, and it's clear he's trying to seduce her. (She resists.) Aimee tries to convince Sutter to move to Philadelphia with her, suggesting they get an apartment together. She wears some cleavage-baring outfits—but none so revealing as the plunging-neckline dress Cassidy wears to prom.
After Sutter nearly has an accident while driving drunk, he yells at Aimee to get out of his car. She does, reluctantly, and is immediately clipped by an oncoming vehicle. The accident looks horrific, but in the end Aimee suffers "only" a broken arm.
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 25 f-words, about 10 paired with "mother." At least 15 s-words. God's name is taken in vain a dozen times, once paired with "d‑‑n." Jesus' is misused a half-dozen. "D‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑" pop up four or five times, "d‑‑k" and "p‑‑‑ed" once. Aimee's younger brother flips off Sutter with both hands.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Sutter carries a whiskey flask everywhere. He drinks at work. He drinks at parties. As noted, he drinks and drives. About the only place he doesn't drink (at least that we see) is at school.
When Sutter takes Aimee to her first high school kegger (one of several we see), he offers her a beer. She isn't interested, but he advises her to carry a red plastic cup around anyway so she'll look "sociable." And when he first offers her whiskey, she's aghast that anyone could drink it. But she soon acclimates to Sutter's liquor habit. He gets her a flask, and she begins drinking too—quite enthusiastically, actually.
That's really a shame for all sorts of reasons, but especially within the confines of this story. Aimee says her father died of a prescription drug overdose, so you'd think that experience might cause her to think more critically about Sutter's chemical dependency. But she never has anything bad to say about it beyond the taste of the stuff. She then becomes an imbiber herself and even enables her boyfriend by giving him more booze.
Sutter also gives beer to other high schoolers. He has no problem getting into bars. And we only see him turn down a drink once. His father is an alcoholic, and we learn that Sutter had his first drink of beer when he was 6. Sutter, Aimee and Sutter's dad have several pitchers of beer together at a bar.
Teens and adults smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Sutter lies to his family about his graduation date. After Aimee's accident, she tells Sutter, "Pretend it never happened. … You're all that matters to me."
Bad boy meets good girl. Bad boy lurches toward reformation. Good girl slides toward corruption. Redemption, of a sort, emerges as both meander through the messiness of late adolescence into the disorienting-but-hopeful first days of life after high school. The Spectacular Now, based on Tim Tharp's book of the same name, delivers an indie-tinged cinematic take on this familiar, good-bad narrative template.
With regard to reformation and redemption, we glimpse a bit of both in this critically applauded, often poignant story. Sutter is more than just a playa, and as the layers of his tragic progression get peeled back, we see someone who in many ways is just a scared little boy longing for his daddy. He's bewildered by life and deals with that bewilderment by drinking, putting his preternatural charm to work and keeping everyone at arm's length, emotionally.
Until, that is, a naive young woman accidentally slips past his defenses and shows him that perhaps he is worthy of real love, that perhaps he can have a real future.
Unfortunately, that brings us to the corruption part of the equation. In the process of helping Sutter move in more mature directions, Aimee gets sucked into immature, immoral and treacherous ones herself. She cheerfully surrenders her virginity to Sutter without much thought of the consequences. And she succumbs significantly to Sutter's drinking habits too. In short, she pays a steep price to serve as something between a muse and a salvific figure to Sutter—and it's not clear that she ever sees how risky all of those choices have been.
Many teens today, of course, do make choices similar to the unwise ones that Sutter and Aimee make. Some drink. Some are addicted to drugs. Some are having sex. And I'm certain that the filmmakers would say they're just representing that slice of reality.
But I can't help but think that even as The Spectacular Now strives to reflect that realness, it also sends dangerously problematic suggestions to teens who haven't made those choices, some of whom might be just as innocently impressionable as Aimee was the morning she found Sutter passed out in a neighbor's yard.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Drama, Comedy, Romance
Miles Teller as Sutter Keely; Shailene Woodley as Aimee Finecky; Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sara; Kyle Chandler as Tommy; Brie Larson as Cassidy; Dayo Okeniyi as Marcus; Masam Holden as Ricky; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Holly
August 2, 2013
Adam R. Holz Adam R. Holz