Ponsoldt has cast his lead actor shrewdly. Teller didn’t get the attention he deserved as the teen who ran over the heroine’s little son in Rabbit Hole—a minefield of a role he made his own just by saying the lines as if he were thinking them up on the spot. He doesn’t have a trained actor’s diction (he hasn’t purged his Eastern Pennsylvania nasality), and it’s that touch of amateurishness that makes his Sutter more believable. The last thing you want is a song-and-dance kid who looks as if he were cast straight from theater camp, where they’re still talking about his Harold Hill. Ponsoldt lets his scenes with Woodley run long and find their own gentle rhythm.
Woodley played George Clooney’s eldest daughter in The Descendants, but I didn’t recognize her here. Her Aimee is so modest and attentive (and lovely and forgiving) that she seems too good to be true. But Aimee’s longing for someone to protect her—and free her from a domineering mother—is in Woodley’s hands too true to be good. She’s frighteningly vulnerable. It’s unfortunate that Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have omitted one crucial episode from Tim Tharp’s fine novel, in which Aimee gets bombed and smacks Cassidy. You need that scene to see that Sutter’s alcoholism is a contagion—that it’s not just threatening his future but Aimee’s, too. My guess is the filmmakers feared that scene would shove The Spectacular Now too violently out of the teen-romance genre, which is less flexible than it should be. You can bring kids down but not that down.
Otherwise, it’s all good. You’ll have to wait until August to see Brie Larson’s breakout performance in the phenomenally moving Short Term 12. Meanwhile, you can admire the shading and intelligence she brings to Cassidy. Kyle Chandler gives an extraordinary performance as Sutter’s long-absent dad, with his macho braggadocio and furtive, tragic eyes. Most teen movies are cocktails of melancholy and elation. This one is best at its most un-transcendent—when it most evokes that period when we never knew what we were supposed to do with the pain.
Hot-dog Hong Kong action stylist Johnnie To has never achieved the cult status of John Woo in this country, but his explosively entertaining—and startlingly splattery—Drug War should win him new fans. The saga of a drug manufacturer who cooperates with cops to avoid the death penalty, it’s a crisscross-y, lickety-split, fairly superficial affair with echoes of Infernal Affairs (remade as The Departed) and Mission: Impossible. But To creates his own inimitable spatial-temporal reality. Gravity lightens. Colors pulse. He sings the dead body electric.