Sutter (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who lives for the moment; Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is the introvert he attempts to 'save'. As their relationship deepens, the lines between right and wrong, friendship and love, and saving and corrupting become inextricably blurred. 

Asked why his films so often dealt with the romantic travails of people much younger than himself, French auteur Eric Rohmer noted that the passions of youth were deeper, and therefore more worthy of scrutiny, than those of maturity. It’s a lesson that recent American cinema seems to have taken to heart. While the multiplexes overflow with films either pandering to adolescence (the Marvel and Twilight franchises) or valorising its potency (The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, the forthcoming Divergent), a small brace of studio-indie flicks have examined this 'difficult age’ with honesty as well as tender affection. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was one of last year’s best movies; The Spectacular Now (based, like that one, on a popular young adult novel) is no less remarkable.

Sutter is a charming underachiever—none too bright, perhaps, but unfailingly good-humoured, and popular enough to coast through his senior year of high school. Drifting from one backyard party to the next, he has no particular ambition beyond the next keg of beer. His girlfriend Cassidy, however, sees him for the budding alcoholic he is, and ends their relationship—which only serves to plunge him into an anguished, week-long bender, complete with blackouts. He wakes from one of these on a stranger’s lawn; looking down at him with fretful concern is Aimee, a plain, slightly geeky suburban girl. And at once, Sutter is smitten...

Or at least, so it seems at the time. But Sutter, we will find, is easily distracted—sometimes by the reappearance of Cassidy, but mostly by the lure of another drink. We’re unsure, for a while, just how seriously he takes this new relationship; we wonder if he’s sincere in his affections for Aimee or is simply toying with her—or if he even understands the difference. ('And if she falls for you?’ a friend asks. 'What happens then?’ Tellingly, Sutter has no answer.)

Aimee, meanwhile, seems in every respect his polar opposite: bookish, cautious to a fault, and intent on planning ahead, on fixing her place in a world from which she’s hitherto felt excluded. Can these two mismatched souls find love? Are they even right for each other?

A teenage romance, then—but also a kind of redemption tale, and a film refreshingly unafraid to acknowledge the significant, occasionally cataclysmic role that drink plays in the life of young men and women. Director James Ponsoldt has tackled similar material before—his 2012 film Smashed, another Sundance premiere, depicted an elementary school teacher struggling to conceal her alcoholism from her colleagues and pupils—but he’s no Temperance League scold. His treatment of the problem is more nuanced than that, and his attention is always fixed firmly on character rather than issues; this never becomes a Problem Movie in the traditional sense. It never offers up a simple moral lesson.

The result manages to marry the traditional conventions of the high-school movie (yes, there is a prom) with something considerably rawer and more deeply-felt. Much of that is due to the script, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the team who gave us the engaging (500) Days of Summer. Like that one, this is both smart—the dialogue, in particular, is excellent—and thoroughly convincing, with an uncanny feel for the idioms and textures, the fine-grained details, of suburban life in the United States. (The novel, set in Oklahoma, has been relocated to the director’s hometown of Athens, Georgia—but the ambience is generalised rather than specific: this is very much an American working-class everytown.)

Films such as these live or die on their casting, and Ponsoldt has assembled an enviable array of character-actors, drawn mostly from television, including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bob Odenkirk, and the superb Andre Royo (best known, still, as Bubbles from The Wire). As Sutter’s deadbeat father, Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler is especially fine, conveying in a single scene the bitter tragedy of a once-promising life derailed less by addiction than by monumental selfishness—a cautionary tale not lost on his appalled son.

But it’s the two stars who shine brightest. As the troubled, hedonistic Sutter, Miles Tiller manages to convey both his character’s charisma and his tormented sense of inadequacy. And the decision to pair him with Shailene Woodley is inspired: their scenes together crackle with real energy and mutual attraction—never more so than when they make love for the first time, shot, like most of their courtship scenes, mostly in a single long take, a directorial decision that proves both discomfortingly intimate and utterly compelling; though not nearly as explicit, it rivals Blue Is the Warmest Colour for the year’s most emotionally-charged sex scene... not least because we know that at least one of the characters is still trying to work out exactly what he feels for the other.

But more crucially, neither of the pair look like movie stars. Teller has soft, blandly boyish features, reminiscent at times of a young Bill Murray, and Woodley (the best thing about Alexander Payne’s The Descendants) simply looks like any average suburban girl. Another characters have acne, minor blemishes, bad teeth; a few kids are overweight. It’s refreshing, since one of the ways in which the typical teen movie breaks faith with its audience is by setting unrealistic standards of beauty or achievement for them to aspire to. But as with everything else here, the representation lies squarely within the realm of the possible.

It’s beautifully directed and faultlessly acted—and intensely, achingly romantic, operating in a register most Hollywood product seems unable, these days, to access. But more than anything else, it’s this film’s unvarnished honesty which makes it so remarkable. No clichés, no pandering. No unearned gratifications or easy solutions. This is quite simply one of the finest teen movies ever made.

intensely, achingly romantic