Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now: Is It the Say Anything of 2013?

VANITY FAIR – August, allegedly one of the year’s pop-cultural backwaters, is actually a great movie-going month. You get the supposed dregs of Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season: the B-movies and funky genre exercises deemed not quite commercial enough for May, June, and July. You also get the first hints of fall: films that are ambitious yet don’t necessarily meet the craven Oscar-bait standards of October, November, and Christmas. In other words, August movies, whether high or low, are often far more interesting than the year’s earlier or later fare. Two current examples are The Spectacular Now, an indie teen romance that aspires to be, maybe, its generation’s Say Anything; and Elysium, the big-budget dystopian action film that represents the final would-be blockbuster in Hollywood’s summer harvest—the last bushel of corn in the farmer’s multiplex.

Two very different films, but they also have two prominent things in common. One: both could be better, which, come to think of it, is true of most movies. More specifically, then: both are smart and idiosyncratic enough that they conjure their own better selves, as if sharper, wittier versions of what you’re watching might be playing simultaneously one auditorium over, or maybe on a future director’s cut on the Blu-Ray. I found myself rooting for them against their own odds, if that makes sense.

Two: whatever their failings, both movies were redeemed by above-and-beyond performances by actors with unusual names that begin with Sh-. So here’s to Shailene Woodley of The Spectacular Now and Sharlto Copley of Elysium! If there were Oscars in August, they’d be shoo-ins.

The nominal hero of The Spectacular Now is Sutter Keely, a glib, wise-cracking, self-proclaimed life of every party with a hot girlfriend. Basically, he’s Ferris Bueller, but instead of romping through a cynical-sentimental John Hughes comedy (one that, to my mind, perfectly captures the ethos of the Reagan years), Sutter is slowly brought to heel. His hot girlfriend dumps him, and worse, as he and we slowly realize, he’s an alcoholic who, while popular, is generally dismissed by his classmates as a buffoon. This presents two big challenges to the filmmakers (director James Ponsoldt, of Smashed, and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, of 500 Days of Summer, adapting Tim Tharp’s novel): avoiding teen-movie clichés and avoiding addiction-movie clichés. For the most part they succeed, telling their story with nuance, understatement, and a kind of offhand reality. Indeed, it’s tribute to that realism that this may be the first teen movie in Hollywood history where the actors are allowed zits and blemishes (although my eyes told me this led to a few continuity errors).

The film’s weakness: a third-act dip into predictable psychological revelations involving an absent father, slightly less predictable alcohol-vehicular interactions, and a far-too tidy ending. Another problem: the lead, Miles Teller (Project X, Rabbit Hole), while appealing, isn’t quite up to the simultaneous layering of charm, narcissism, anguish, and blithe assholery that the role demands, though in fairness, most actors wouldn’t be, aside from maybe the Marcello Maistrionni of La Dolce Vita.

But Shailene Woodley. She plays Sutter’s rebound girlfriend, Aimee Finicky, a pretty but mousey nice girl who blossoms under his attention. I have to confess I’m late to the Shailene party, having never seen The Descendants, the 2011 film in which she had a break-out role as George Clooney’s daughter, or the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, on which she has starred for the last five years, but I found her mesmerizing from her first scene in The Spectacular Now. Her Aimee is vulnerable but eager, possessed of a lovely inner light and a fragile outer shell, and sharper than she lets on. It’s another role with complex, conflicting shadings, and I would guess it’s much harder to play than Woodley, who can seemingly give the word “awesome” infinite meanings and inflections, makes it look. I’m not sure how else to praise the performance except to say that I can’t think of a more honest and natural movie teenager than Aimee, and that Woodley provides The Spectacular Now (awful title) with instant narrative tension because, of course, once she’s introduced, you spend the rest of the film fearing that Sutter and the film will break her heart.