I’ve long contended that the titular hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) isn’t a character so much as an ideal, a symbol of youthful perfection that most would dismiss as absurd if he didn’t already inhabit a cartoon universe. Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now poses the question, what if Ferris existed in the real world? What plausible human traits could make such a teen irresistible to everyone around him yet so giving? Can a high school senior sustain the motto, “Live in the now,” at such a crucial juncture in his life, and, more to the point, should he?
The answer comes in the form of a boy named Sutter (Miles Teller), whose acute sense of empathy allows him to immediately decipher what a person wants or needs to hear and deliver it in the form of a soothing, almost nurturing joke. I love the detail of his subconscious manipulation, the way, for example, he gets the wholesome Aimee (Shailene Woodley) to go out with him by formulating every proposal as a declaration. Also consider how he gets rid of her at a party, striking a conversation with someone he knows shares a common interest with her and then sneaking off to talk to his on-again, off-again ex, Cassidy (Brie Larson).
No, The Spectacular Now is not the sort of movie in which a popular jock treats an introverted girl like dirt so he can learn to respect women. Whether or not he’s on the rebound, our hero genuinely likes Aimee and only ends up hurting her because of the complexity of their attachment. By the same token, Cassidy, who initially comes off like a petulant queen bee, reveals new emotional depths with every brief appearance, adding layer upon layer of heartbreak to her own relationship with Sutter.
The film opens on Cassidy breaking up with our hero over a silly misunderstanding, but we see her with a new beau the next evening, hinting that her jealous fit might have been staged. Later, the girl pleads for Sutter to drop his “spectacular now” act and work toward a future, making it clear that her hookup with Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) was the pretext for their breakup, not the other way around. The extent of her compassion is made clearer on prom night, when she invites Aimee to the dance floor, but her final words in The Spectacular Now comprise their most devastating exchange: “I’m not mad at you.”
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber provide no reason for us to think she would be, but, by that point in The Spectacular Now, we’ve figured out Cassidy knows our hero better than anyone, which raises the question, why would he think she’s mad? Certainly, the boy carries intricate wounds that seem to have warped his self-perception. Consider his intense alcoholism, his denial regarding the father (Kyle Chandler) who abandoned him or, better yet, the resulting fight when he and Aimee return from meeting the old man. “I love you,” she declares, trying to counter his disappointment, but that’s the last thing Sutter wants to hear from a girl he’s now terrified of hurting like his dad hurt his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
We get where the boy’s coming from. Ever since she met him, Aimee has taken to carrying a secret flask and pouring whisky into inconspicuous, easy-to-carry paper cups. We learn that her father was an addict but also sense she’s doing it to please her boyfriend. Either way, the whole thing makes for a disturbing sight, though it should be noted that The Spectacular Now isn’t about substance abuse. It’s about Sutter, and I appreciate Ponsoldt’s decision to discuss his alcoholism as a symptom rather than the disease, however contagious it may prove.
In a way, Aimee is merely resuming a discourse that Sutter already started with Cassidy and, come to think of it, everyone who’s ever loved him, be it his mother, sister (Elizabeth Winstead), teacher (Andre Royo), or manager at a men’s clothing store (Bob Odenkirk). Having grown so adept at presenting himself as an ideal, our hero has come to believe no one can accept him as a person with needs of his own. It’s at that profound realisation, I confess, that The Spectacular Now got me to blubber like a gothy tween at a Twilight (2008) screening. At the beginning of this review, I described Ferris Bueller as more of a construct than a human being. The tragedy lies in that, in real life, he might just agree.