Scott Nuestadter and Michael H. Weber have scarcely advanced an inch in their understanding of women as anything other than would-be accessories for “sensitive” self-obsessed men in the four years since they penned (500) Days of Summer. In Marc Webb’s film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom woos and is ultimately rebuffed by a typically quirky Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, but rather than sympathizing with her decision not to conform to his fantasy, the film rudely shoves her aside and presents him with a more willing partner. The Spectacular Now may flip the formula, but the results are largely the same. This time, the female lead, high school senior Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), is an unwavering supporter of her troubled booze-happy boyfriend, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), no matter how many questionable things he does. And yet, because the film does so many other things right, because James Ponsoldt’s direction brings a real understanding to both the awkwardness and the pleasures of human interaction, and because Woodley’s excellent performance gives off an authentic sense of teen unease and desire, the film is much richer and less simplistic than the writing duo’s too-cutesy earlier offering.
Woodley may steal the show, but there’s no doubt that the film belongs to Teller’s Sutter. A good-time kid smarting from his breakup with his girlfriend and determined to live in an eternal present despite his half-assed attempts at filling out college applications, Sutter is also haunted by the absence of his father. Blaming his hardworking mother for the long-ago dissolution of their family, he demands that she allow him to visit the father he hasn’t seen for years and whose phone number and address she refuses to give him. Along the way, he takes up with Woodley’s never-been-kissed nerd Aimee, who represents an unlikely choice for the popular Sutter, but the two quickly strike a bond, based, among other things, on missing (or, in Aimee’s case, deceased) fathers and a need to stand up to their mothers.
The early scenes between the two lovers are among the film’s finest, and the filmmakers smartly undercut the romanticism of many of these sequences by suggesting that even as Sutter is wooing Aimee, she still serves as a consolation prize for the ex he can’t win back. Also shrewd is the way that the film factors Sutter’s seemingly casual alcoholism into the equation. During a daytime party at a local swimming hole, an intoxicated Sutter takes Aimee aside, kisses her, tells her she’s beautiful, and invites her to the prom. The next morning we see him in bed, struggling to recall the previous day’s events, and as we watch these flashbacks, it remains ambiguous to the viewer how much of what he told Aimee was the booze talking and how much was genuine.
Unfortunately, the film then turns its attention primarily to the question of Sutter’s parental inheritance, particularly the ways in which he either has been, or imagines he has been, shaped in both his alcoholism and his philosophy of living in the moment, by his absent father. A trip to see his dad opens his eyes to the man’s essential shittiness, and, while the scenes between the two are smartly handled, they ultimately turn the film into a largely reductive Freudian character piece in which Sutter has to come to terms with his old man. It’s a questionable turn for a movie that that, until that point, succeeded largely by avoiding this kind of easy psychologizing, instead unfolding as a series of sharply rendered interactions between young people trying to figure out their place in a world that exists beyond their fragile understanding.