"The Spectacular Now," like "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," is one of those rare and nuanced coming-of-age stories that realistically depicts teenagers doing stupid things, making short-sighted decisions, but also thinking and feeling deeply and falling hopelessly in love. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber ("500 Days of Summer") say in a short video that precedes the movie that they wanted to write a film that was a tribute to the very relatable John Hughes movies of their youth. There's nothing paranormal or supernatural or dystopian about these teens. This is real life, where even fabulous kids with big hearts can be spectacularly messed up in one way or the other. Stars Miles Teller ("Footloose") and Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants") are amazing in their roles as hard-partying protagonist Sutter and his socially awkward new girlfriend, Aimee.
So why is such a poignant movie about the teen experience rated R? Well, there's underage drinking, fairly realistic (and frank) sex, and an endless stream of curse words. If your teen is mature enough, it could be a great parent-teen movie outing, but here are five questions to consider before taking (or dropping off) your teens to see "The Spectacular Now."
1. Are you uncomfortable with scenes of underage drinking? There's a LOT of alcohol in "The Spectacular Now." Although the word is never said, Sutter is an alcoholic who can't seem to function without his steady Big Gulp-sized cup of soda spiked with hard liquor. The guy gives his girlfriend a stainless steel flask as a present. If you are 100% confident your kids have yet and will never go to a red cup party where alcohol is served to underage teens, or you're uncomfortable with your teens seeing a film where high-school kids drink to excess, you've been warned. The director and screenwriters don't make the substance abuse issue too preachy, but it's fairly obvious how drinking can and does ruin lives.
2. Do you want them to "Read it, Then See It"? I'm very strict with my kids (and myself) about adaptations. I want them to read the books first and picture the characters and locations without actors or set pieces already attached to the author's words, and if they're too young to read the book, they're too young to see the movie! It's best to be familiar with source material before seeing how a filmmaker, artists and stars take an author's vision from page to screen. So whenever possible, I insist my kids "read it, then see it." And if you're taking your teens to see it first, I still highly recommend checking out or buying Tim Tharp's 2008 novel, a National Book Award finalist and an unforgettable read.
3. Do you worry about sex/language? Most teens curse. Not all, of course, but the vast majority do, and this movie -- like the book -- reflects that through Sutter's penchant for using "motherf-ker" and "f-k" like he's the reincarnation of a Quentin Tarantino character. But the language is mostly used with humor and not with anger. As for the sex, this is not one of those movies where virginity (or the loss thereof) is obsessed over and joked about; Sutter has had sex with his ex-girlfriend (there's a quick flashback of them just to prove it) and he has sex with his new, much less experienced girlfriend Aimee. Their first time together is one of the most realistic (i.e. giggly, awkward, sweet) love scenes ever on film. It's a tasteful scene, but in case you're wondering, yes, there is some blink-and-you'll-miss-it nudity. If you can't handle watching these types of scenes with your teen, then you might want to sit in a different row.
4. Who will enjoy the movie most? Because of the heavy content, this is a film best reserved for older teens already in high school. Although readers as young as 10 or 11 have been known to read YA books, this adaptation isn't appropriate for tweens or even young middle school-aged viewers. At Common Sense Media, I rated the movie a 15+, and I stand by that recommendation. It takes real maturity to sit through this one, and for parents, it's an ideal conversation starter about adolescent apathy, substance use (and abuse!), relationships, and planning for college/the future. Even though it might be a bit awkward, I think this is a coming-of-age movie parents should see with their teens (again, sit separately if it's too embarrassing to watch right next to them).
5. What are critics saying about "The Spectacular Now"? Reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and as of right now the movie boasts a remarkable 81 on Metacritic and a 93 on Rotten Tomatoes. "A pure gem of a teen romance graced with sparkling acting by its young leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as high-school seniors falling awkwardly in love" says Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press. Joe Neumaier, of "The New York Daily News," calls it an "affecting, intelligent drama is a pair of teenagers, and in them is so much complexity and heart that this casually paced gem feels rich in scope."