‘The Spectacular Now’ With Shailene Woodley, Brings Back the Coming-of-Age Movie

WALL STREET JOURNAL – A few weeks ago, after a screening of “The Spectacular Now” at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, director James

Ponsoldt received an unusual question from a teenager in the audience: “What genre would you call this?” she asked.

“I said, ‘Well, what would you call it?’ ” says Mr. Ponsoldt. “And she was like, ‘I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.’ ”

The teen coming-of-age drama—sans zombies or werewolves—was a cinematic staple in the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of filmmakers like Cameron Crowe (“Say Anything…”) and John Hughes (“Sixteen Candles”). Beloved by Gen-Xers like Mr. Ponsoldt, the genre has slipped away from the mainstream movie landscape in recent years—and the few exceptions rarely are released in the summer.

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily what audiences want now or if it’s what the studios are serving them,” says Mr. Ponsoldt. He hopes that if “The Spectacular Now” proves to be profitable, “then maybe people will make more [of these types of films], and won’t feel like the characters have to be witches or vampires.”

To be sure, films from “Juno” to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and the current “The Way Way Back,” for teens and about teens, have arisen amid the parade of “Twilight” movies for girls and gross-out comedies for guys. But nostalgic, emotional dramas centering on the road to young adulthood are less common these days.

Based on a young-adult novel by Tim Tharp, “The Spectacular Now” tells the story of Sutter (Miles Teller), a popular suburban high-school senior who falls for a brainy loner, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), after he wakes up on her front lawn following a night of excessive partying. As their relationship develops, Aimee pushes Sutter to search for his absentee father (Kyle Chandler), while he teaches her how to have more fun. The film got rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered in January; the two lead actors won a special jury prize for their performances and distributor A24 picked up the film for an undisclosed sum. The relatively new distribution company has had recent successes with films featuring young protagonists such as Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” which focuses on college girls gone wild, and Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” based on the true story about high-school kids who burglarized celebrities’ homes.

Unlike those films, “The Spectacular Now,” which opens Aug. 2, harks back to more innocent portrayals of adolescence, such as Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 classic, “The Last Picture Show.” Although there is drinking and sexual activity in “The Spectacular Now,” the film “is not trying to shock an audience with, ‘Oh, my God, look how crazy kids can be—they’re on drugs, and raping people and stealing,’ ” says Mr. Ponsoldt. He shot the film on 35mm film, instead of going digital, to give the movie a nostalgic feel. He also shot it in his hometown, Athens, Ga., for a personal touch.

A24 is hoping that “The Spectacular Now” will replicate the success of last year’s unexpected teen hit, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” That film, starring Emma Watson and Logan Lerman as a couple of high-school misfits, was based on a hugely popular young-adult novel.

“The Spectacular Now” faces an additional hurdle, since it is rated R, which could limit its audience and box-office potential. “Perks,” by contrast, was rated PG-13. Producer Andrew Lauren (“The Squid and the Whale”) says he thinks the R rating could actually wind up enhancing the film’s appeal. “Growing up, I know I always wanted to go to those R-rated movies,” he says. “Hopefully, it will attract a lot of young viewers, but it’s also for older people, for parents.”

To boost awareness among the over-25 set, A24 collaborated with theaters in about 10 markets on a screening series called “The Spectacular Classics.” Each week, the theaters showed a different iconic teen coming-of-age movie—from “Almost Famous” to “The Breakfast Club”—featuring a video introduction from the screenwriters of “The Spectacular Now,” Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter (co-writers of the 2009 indie hit “(500) Days of Summer”). “If you’re here, then you’re probably like us and you long for the days when movies about young people were about real things,” Mr. Neustadter says in the introduction.

Mr. Ponsoldt says certain decisions, such as casting Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of Sutter’s mother, were intended as a wink at older audiences. “I don’t think the 17-year-olds who see our film will say, ‘Oh, that mom was the main character of ‘Fast Times [at Ridgemont High].’ But people of a certain age will,” says Mr. Ponsoldt.

To attract young adult fiction lovers, the book on which the film was based was reissued with a new cover, featuring a romantic scene from the movie. Since June 19, when the trailer to the film was released on EW.com, sales of the book have risen tenfold, according to a spokeswoman for Knopf. When it was initially released in 2008, Mr. Tharp’s novel was nominated for a National Book Award in the young-adult category, but it never hit the best-seller list until a few weeks ago. On Amazon, the book was ranked No. 39 in teen and young-adult books Thursday.

The top three books on Amazon’s young-adult best-sellers list are all being adapted into movies starring Ms. Woodley, who is shaping up to become the millennial Molly Ringwald. Best known for her performance as George Clooney’s difficult daughter in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” she will soon star in the big-budget “Divergent”—based on a best-selling dystopian series by Veronica Roth—which comes out in March; a sequel, “Insurgent” is expected the following year. “The Fault in Our Stars,” based on a best-selling novel by John Green, is another independent coming-of-age drama, in which Ms. Woodley stars as a terminal cancer patient who falls in love with a young man at a support group. Messrs. Neustadter and Weber wrote the screenplay.