Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a charming 18-year-old who is partying and drinking his way through his senior year of high school. When his beautiful girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) decides he's a lost cause and breaks up with him and starts seeing Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), the School President and an athletic star, Sutter goes out and gets drunk.
He wakes up on the front lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a girl in his year whose name he doesn't know. Aimee is about to do her mother's paper route, because she too is sleeping off the night before. Sutter helps her out and they have a good time. He sits with her at lunch and asks her to tutor him in geometry, which he is failing, and learns she is smart, funny and into sci-fi and comics. Sutter invites Aimee to a party, where he introduces her to some Sci-Fi fans and then asks Cassidy to have a drink with him, but Marcus arrives to pick her up. Sutter and Aimee go for a walk and get drunk from his hip flask. Aimee confesses she has never been drunk before, never had a boyfriend and doesn't think she can go to college because she has to take care of her irresponsible mother. Sutter tells her she is not responsible for her mother, she is beautiful, the boys at the party liked her and kisses her.
The next morning Sutter wakes up hung over and realizes that he asked Aimee to prom the night before. Avoiding his college application, Sutter IMs Cassidy, who invites him over. They get drunk in her room, reminisce and Sutter says he's happy with his life living in the moment. Cassidy say she needs more than a moment, she needs a future which Sutter can't do. Marcus, who is jealous of the way Sutter and Cassidy have fun, confronts Sutter, who reassures him that Cassidy doesn't want him anymore, but perhaps Marcus could lighten up sometimes.
Sutter has been avoiding Aimee and her friend Krystal (Kaitlyn Dever) warns him not to hurt her. Sutter takes Aimee to dinner at his sister Holly's (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who's married a wealthy lawyer and become a housewife. At dinner Aimee talks frankly about the death of her father from an opiate overdose and her dreams of a perfect marriage. Sutter and Aimee become more serious. Aimee invites Sutter over to have sex. Afterwards Sutter confesses that his mother kicked his father out when he was a child and has forbidden him from seeing him. They make a pact to stand up to their mothers. Sutter buys Aimee a hip flask as a gift for prom, so they can drink together. Aimee is too shy to dance, so Sutter dances first with Cassidy and they're the center of attention, but then he drags Aimee onto the dance floor for a slow dance. The night goes well and Aimee tells him that she is going to college in Philadelphia where her sister lives, and can help her find an apartment and job in a bookstore. She asks Sutter to come with her and go to junior college there.
Sutter's get his father's (Kyle Chandler) phone number from Holly and arranges to meet up to see a baseball game, like they used to, and takes Aimee along. His father has forgotten about their plans and instead takes them to a local bar, then ditches them when he picks up a woman at the bar. He asks them to get the tab and meet him back at his motel, but when he fails to show up they find him back in the bar drinking with his mates so they head home. Aimee attempts to comfort Sutter, by telling him she loves him, but Sutter, angry and drunk, snaps at her. After almost causing an accident, he tells her he's no good for her and forces her to get out of the car, where she is clipped by a passing car. Fortunately Aimee has only a broken arm and forgives Sutter for the incident.
After graduation Sutter refuses to drink with Aimee from her flask. Cassidy informs Sutter that she is going to California with Marcus. He suggests he might pay a visit to them but Cassidy says it's a bad idea. She hugs him goodbye and tells him he will always be her favorite ex-boyfriend. His boss, Dan (Bob Odenkirk) tells him he has to let go of some staff. He wants to keep Sutter on, because he is great with the clients, but only if he stops turning up drunk. Sutter says he can't promise that and quits. Sutter then drives past Aimee, who is waiting for him by the bus to Philadelphia, leaving her heartbroken. He heads to a bar and explains to the barflies that it was for Aimee's own good. He drives home drunk, totals the mailbox and gets in an argument with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He says he saw his father and he's just like him. His mother says he isn't like his father at all because he has a kind heart. Sutter reassesses his life and finally completes the personal statement for his college application, even though he knows it's way too late. He confess that his biggest problem is himself. Afraid of failure and getting hurt he has tried to shut out everything and everybody. While living in the now is OK, there's always another now and he will make sure his nows add up to something. He drives to Philadelphia and finds Aimee as she is leaving class. He looks up at her hopefully. She suppresses a smile when she sees him and gives him a stern look.Miles Teller as Sutter Keely
Shailene Woodley as Aimee Finecky
Brie Larson as Cassidy
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sara Keely
Kyle Chandler as Tommy Keely
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Holly Keely
Dayo Okeniyi as Marcus
Andre Royo as Mr. Aster
Bob Odenkirk as Dan
Kaitlyn Dever as Krystal
Masam Holden as Ricky
Gary Weeks as Joe
Whitney Goin as Mrs. Finecky
Nicci Faires as Tara
Principal photography commenced in Athens, Georgia, in July 2012 and wrapped a month later. While the novel is set in Oklahoma, director James Ponsoldt preferred to shoot in his hometown; he explained:
The script didn't identify where it was set – the setting just wasn't a big city. It felt vaguely suburban – or kind of like a college town. It seemed to me that the script had a sense of place in the way that Breaking Away did. Athens was such an obvious candidate as a setting to shoot the film in – and it was really the only place I wanted to make the film. Filming in Athens was incredibly meaningful to me. We shot in the streets and houses of my childhood!
The Spectacular Now opened in limited release in North America on August 2, 2013 in four theaters and grossed $197,415 with an average of $49,354 per theater and ranking #30 at the box office. The film's wide release was in 770 theaters and it ended up earning $6.9 million domestically and an additional $63,980 elsewhere for a total of $6.9 million, against its $2.5 million budget.
The Spectacular Now was warmly received at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 93% based on 151 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Spectacular Now is an adroit, sensitive film that avoids typical coming-of-age story trappings." On Metacritic the film has a score of 82 out of 100, based on 42 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
The late Roger Ebert, in one of the last reviews he filed, awarded the film a full four stars, stating in his review:
Here is a lovely film about two high school seniors who look, speak and feel like real 18-year-old middle-American human beings. Do you have any idea how rare that is? They aren't crippled by irony. They aren't speeded up into cartoons. Their sex lives aren't insulted by scenes that treat them cheaply [...] What an affecting film this is. It respects its characters and doesn't use them for its own shabby purposes. How deeply we care about them. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are so there. Being young is a solemn business when you really care about someone. Teller has a touch of John Cusack in his Say Anything period. Woodley is beautiful in a real person sort of way, studying him with concern, and then that warm smile. We have gone through senior year with these two. We have known them. We have been them.
Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times also gave the film four stars out of four, describing it as "the best American movie of the year so far". He summarized his review by adding: "The Spectacular Now will bring you back to that time in your life when you were trying to soak in every moment, because everyone told you there's nothing better than your last year in high school." In The Hollywood Reporter, critic Todd McCarthy called the film "a sincere, refreshingly unaffected look at teenagers and their attitudes about the future... Ordinary in some ways and extraordinary in others, The Spectacular Now benefits from an exceptional feel for its main characters on the parts of the director and lead actors."
Dana Stevens of Slate also praised both the leads, commenting that "Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley have such a disarmingly direct and spontaneous connection as actors that Sutter and Aimee almost immediately come to seem like a couple you've known (or been part of) at some point in your life... The Spectacular Now captures the beauty and scariness and lacerating intensity of first love". Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman described it as "one of the rare truly soulful and authentic teen movies." He compared it favorably to Say Anything... and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, saying "like them, it's a movie about the experience of being caught on the cusp and truly not knowing which way you'll land."
In Variety, critic Rob Nelson wrote: "The scars and blemishes on the faces of the high-school lovers in The Spectacular Now are beautifully emblematic of director James Ponsoldt's bid to bring the American teen movie back to some semblance of reality, a bid that pays off spectacularly indeed." Cinema Blend called it "the rare Sundance coming-of-age story that feels like it matters", adding: "The Spectacular Now is an instant MVP of the first half of the festival, with potential breakout hit written all over it... you'll be hearing a lot about this one down the road, and it's got the goods to live up to the hype." Phoebe Reilly of Spin called the film "the next great teen movie" and "truly remarkable". She acclaimed Teller and Woodley for their "absurdly natural performances", with Sutter "uniquely irresistible" and Aimee "a perfect repertoire of nervous giggles and awkward mannerisms."
At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, The Spectacular Now received the Special Jury Award for Acting.