James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" hits on something few movies do: an honest, believable depiction of teenagers, in love and out. Sutter (Miles Teller) and Aimee (Shailene Woodley) are high-school seniors, but they don't yet know who they are. Sutter drinks too much, to cover up insecurities and to fuel bravado; he's giving a performance of a perfectly cool guy, but not quiet believing that he is one. Aimee punctuates nearly every sentence with nervous giggles, not quite confident in her ability to maintain anyone's interest -- let alone someone like Sutter. Their first meeting isn't exactly cute, but it's memorable: He's passed out in somebody's front yard at dawn; she, busy doing her mother's paper route, finds him there. (They go to the same school. She knows who he is; he doesn't know her.)
And so begins what isn't exactly a storybook romance, but is nonetheless something approaching real love. Sutter's surprised by his feelings for quiet Aimee, who's nothing like his sparkling, snappy ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). But he's drawn to her sweetness, her way of lighting up when he enters a room. The two are both fatherless -- his left, hers died -- and both wounded by the loss. He seems, without ever saying it or even realizing it, a better person when she's around, but his drinking (and, gradually, hers, too) casts a shadow on their relationship.
Ponsoldt, who previously directed Mary Elizabeth Winstead's tour de force performance in "Smashed" (she also appears here, as Sutter's older-and-wiser sister), is wonderful with actors. It's not that Teller and Woodley haven't been this good before -- see "Rabbit Hole" and "The Descendants," respectively, for proof -- but that they're perfectly matched. You believe that they're teenagers in a nondescript town; you hear what they're saying beneath the teenspeak. Teller, who'll remind moviegoers of the young John Cusack, perfectly blends swagger with vulnerability; Woodley arrives in the movie a few minutes in and immediately softens it, balancing out his brashness and letting us see Aimee's yearnings. She doesn't know quite what she wants yet; maybe it's Sutter? At first she's drawn to him because he's paying attention to her; gradually, she sees and loves the person he is.
"The Spectacular Now," based on a novel by Tim Thorp and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ("(500) Days of Summer"), gets a little melodramatic before its note-perfect, abrupt ending. But it's ultimately kind to its characters; not wrapping up their problems tidily, but reminding them and us that when you're 18, you have time to figure things out. "The best part about now," Sutter realizes eventually, "is that there's another one tomorrow."