It’s not a star-crossed tale of young love, but rather a character-driven story about the agonies of awaiting the future when you’re not sure if you’ve got one. A film version of Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now (Knopf), a 2010 National Book Award finalist, releases on August 2. The movie, from studio and distributor A24, stars Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and is directed by James Ponsoldt; it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Unlike many recent blockbuster YA novels-turned-movies, The Spectacular Now has taken a modest path to the big screen. The film has made its way through the indie circuit, potentially setting an example for upcoming adaptations of other realistic YA fiction featuring unconventional and sometimes unlucky adolescents (John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars , which is currently in development also stars Woodley).
Tharp’s novel centers on high school senior Sutter Keely, whose lackadaisical attitude (fortified by a steady intake of whiskey and 7-Up) toward school and whatever comes afterward makes him both a social magnet among thrill-seeking peers and prone either for disaster or, at least, a dead-end life. After passing out in Aimee Finicky’s front yard, the two dramatically dissimilar teenagers develop a mutual curiosity and an unanticipated romance. While Tim initially thinks of Aimee as a pet project – he aims to introduce her to the worry-free wonders of living in the moment and buy her a social life in the process – their relationship becomes more meaningful as the end of high school approaches and with it, choices that need to be made.
The film was adapted for screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who previously teamed for 500 Days of Summer. It closely follows the arc of the book, which is narrated by Sutter in a stream-of-consciousness style dictated through his raucous, drunken, and shortsighted lens. Yet behind that lens is a narrator keenly familiar with the emptiness that floods in when the sun comes up. Will the film effectively toe the sometimes challenging line between drama and comedy, to draw a significant audience?
Early reviews have pointed to the film’s poignancy and authenticity, with several reviewers observing that Aimee and Sutter not only act, but also look like real teenagers – blemishes and all. In a Sundance review from earlier this year, Jordan Hoffman pointed to the film’s maturity, namely in its refusal to “allow for any real villains,” with even maligned characters ultimately being sympathetic. He also addressed the film exchanging tidy lessons and happy endings for sometimes uncomfortable ambiguity.
In a review for the Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy touches on the potential difficulties of marketing a film that “embraces both adolescent and grown-up perspectives.” The right distributor,” he said, “would be the one that could miraculously attract both audience segments, however fanciful that dream might be.”
At Sundance, both Woodley and Teller were honored with a Jury Award for their acting in the film – some of which, according to Teller, was improvised. “What James allowed [us] to do was embody these characters. If we didn't feel comfortable saying a line, we didn’t [say it],” Teller told reporters at South by Southwest earlier this year. And, in fact, Teller chose not to use a line from the script that pointedly – and perhaps too obviously – references the name of the film.
Growing Readership for a Sleeper Hit?
Despite its critical accolades, Tharp’s often painful novel about standing awkwardly at the cusp of adulthood didn’t roar off the shelves Mortal Instruments style. But with the film’s potential to draw an audience of both teen and adult viewers, Tharp’s book holds potential to gain significant crossover appeal among readers. According to Dominique Cimina, director of publicity at Random House Children’s Books, “There has been a noticeable uptick in awareness of the movie (and subsequently the book), especially after the trailer premiered on MTV.”
This month, Random House releases a movie tie-in edition of The Spectacular Now, exchanging the book’s original cover art for a film still – Amee and Sutter sit on the hood of Sutter’s car on a tree-lined street, taking in the evening before prom. It’s an image that would seem to speak as much to the power of an iconic moment as to its transience.