Movie Review:Strong acting sets ‘The Spectacular Now’ apart

I was drawn to “The Spectacular Now” by rising star Shailene Woodley.

So imagine my surprise when I found her work overshadowed by four or five stronger performances in this acting tour de force.

With the exception of Naomi Watts in the criminally neglected “The Impossible,” I haven’t seen a better performance this year than Miles Teller’s sensational turn as Sutter Keely, a boozy teen who falls for hard-working good-girl Aimee Finecky (Woodley).

Teller is astoundingly unaffected – like he just walked out of calculus on his way to the student parking lot on a Friday afternoon; radiating warmth and authenticity, Sutter is impossible to dislike, despite his appalling apathy about grades and his habit of popping out a flask morning, noon and night – even at work.

Woodley is perhaps best known from TV’s “Secret Life of the American Teenager,” though I first encountered her in 2011’s “The Descendants,” where her splendid performance netted more than a dozen award nominations.

Currently so red-hot she somehow managed to get cast in both “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” Woodley is a trifle over the top in this film – a little too “teenified,” if I may.

Director James Ponsoldt probably wanted to foreground Aimee’s lack of self-confidence; but her fumbling, squirming uncertainty clashes badly with the smoother, more synthetic personae of the other teens, particularly Brie Larson as Sutter’s ex and Masam Holden as his pal Ricky.

Other standouts include Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mom, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his older sister and Kyle Chandler as his absentee father.

The sequence in which Winstead tearfully gives Dad’s phone number to Sutter and the teen then finally meets this affable but utterly useless man is worth the price of admission.

In moments like these, “The Spectacular Now” feels blazingly real; but if you’ll pardon the pun, I couldn’t swallow its handling of alcohol.

Surely the adults around Sutter must smell it on him (his oversized Styrofoam fountain drink is often spiked); and surely it wouldn’t be so easy for these teens to drink in bars, cars and parks – not to mention the senior prom and high-school graduation.

And I didn’t care for the way Sutter supposedly liberates Aimee by urging her to swear and drink as well – even getting her a matching flask with her name engraved on it.

Many parents will hope to see Aimee exerting a salutary effect on Sutter’s dangerous lifestyle; but the effect, for most of the film, seems to be in the other direction.

Likewise, I couldn’t get a handle on the film’s message. Clearly Sutter’s live-for-the-moment philosophy is killing him; and we can see how it has ruined his father as well.

But the much more sensible Aimee also seems to embody this mindset at times, and I didn’t feel the film reached any kind of clear conclusion on the matter – especially given its title.

But as a primer on spectacular acting, you won’t often see better.