You knew a guy like Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) in high school — we all did. He's the kid everyone loves and nobody can rely on, the larger-than-life goofball whose legendary status on campus is in indirect proportion to the mess he'll make of his life. Girls swoon and then are done with him in a month. He's going nowhere and having a great time doing it.
"The Spectacular Now," a cleareyed, disarmingly tender adolescent romance that bears comparison with the best of its genre, both old ("Say Anything") and new ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower"), gets us to share the affection, exasperation, and concern Sutter's friends and teachers feel for him. It matters a lot that Teller has the part: A gifted young actor usually marooned in raucous teen comedies ("21 & Over," "Project X"), he has the quickness of mind and shagginess of affect to win us over. We have to like Sutter, even if he doesn't much like himself.
The story picks up in senior spring, when Sutter's girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson, excellent if too old for her role), has had enough of his wayward ways and dumps him. He pours out his misery in a college essay he'll never finish, then gets drunk — again — and winds up passed out on the lawn of Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), one of those quiet, patient classmates no one ever notices. Which is fine by her, actually. When Sutter asks, "What's your thing?" — meaning jock, nerd, princess, theater rat — she responds that she's just herself.
That's downright revolutionary to Sutter, as well as to us. In its unassuming fashion, "The Spectacular Now," which is based on a 2008 young adult book by Tim Tharp, is a response to the John Hughes factory philosophy that everyone has his or her social niche to fill in the cosmology of high school. (Think of "The Breakfast Club," that model UN for misfit teens.) Instead, director James Ponsoldt and his screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, offer the novel proposition that we're more alike than different and that our ordinariness is something to be celebrated rather than spurned.
Woodley advances on her Oscar-nominated turn in "The Descendants" by playing to that ordinariness; Aimee is refreshingly free of makeup, literally and figuratively. What you see is what you get, even if her response to dating the charismatic class cutup leads her to share his fondness for hip flasks and whiskey. We don't worry about Aimee, though — we know she's just passing through.
We do worry about Sutter, as do his overworked single mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has married up and out, the gentle haberdasher (Bob Odenkirk) for whom he works. Even Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), the class president and football god who picks up with Cassidy, can't bring himself to hate Sutter. "Why can't it be me she has fun with?" he wonders to the rival who ends up consoling him.
"The Spectacular Now" has its clanky scenes, especially toward the end, when it feels the need to move toward resolution. An increasingly desperate Sutter seeks out his father, played by a bleary-eyed Kyle Chandler as an older, unwiser version of his son, and then there's an emergency-room crisis, and then there's an emotional catharsis where the hero says everything we already know about him. A little pat, and, besides, the finest moments have come earlier, in the passages in which Sutter and Aimee simply get to know each other. Those scenes are so observant of the hushed, privileged thrill of falling in love — the girl losing her innocence, the boy reclaiming his — that they do what only the best teen romances do. They remind you of how it felt when you finally realized anything was possible.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.