The Spectacular Now may be taken as yet more evidence that the suits of the latter-day studio system increasingly know nothing beyond the business of grabbing pocket-money dollars with monthly superhero bulletins. James Ponsoldt's superior teen movie was well-received in the US and received glowing reviews upon its UK premiere at the London Film Festival in 2013, only to then find itself shelved by its distributor Disney, who wouldn't even afford it the courtesy of a token DVD release - still, what price sincere, universal YA drama, when you could be flogging Star Wars keyrings and Frozen Easter eggs? From a distance, granted, the film might appear just another tale of puppy love: that of a boy and a girl thrown together and trying to figure something out between sips of beer from those red plastic cups that have become de rigueur in all modern American teen movies. The trick is the quiet, unemphatic yet supremely attentive manner in which Ponsoldt tells it, forever seeking out an affecting psychological realism in his source material - a Tim Tharp book that provides screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber with far richer (and notably less sappy) pickings than their subsequent smash hit The Fault in Our Stars.
Two smashing performances carry us along: from Miles Teller, as the inveterate party animal sobering up just long enough to realise the tricky spot he's in (caught between an old flame and a new spark, a devoted mum and a deadbeat dad), and that nobody really takes him seriously; and from Shailene Woodley, as the gauche, possibly virginal young thing who falls under her swain's spell of clubbability, so naive she hardly notices she may just be a rebound thing. As Ponsoldt did in his earlier, highly promising Smashed, he goes looking for something deeper in this relationship than montages of mooning and making out, pulling out a dynamic that feels true to adolescent life: it's the too-cool-for-school senior who's been around the block, and the kid whose heart he doesn't realise he has first dibs on, struggling to discard the suboptimal hands their parents have dealt them and smuggle away a collection of cherished memories before college and adulthood intervene. After this, Woodley would be whisked away to - and largely wasted on - the dullsville Insurgent franchise, and though Teller had only to wait a year or so before Whiplash, he still ended up doing the dud Fantastic 4 reboot. Ponsoldt, who in a previous era might have been nurtured and saluted as a great director in the making, saw follow-up The End of the Tour shuttled straight-to-DVD in the UK: an improvement, I guess, but not much.
The Spectacular Now screens on BBC1 tonight at 11.35pm.