This is not a love story. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber prefaced their breakout film (500) Days of Summer with that warning, and I think it applies here, too, despite the marketing efforts to sell this thing as a teen romance. Yes, there is young love, full of fresh wonder and awkward ums – a scene set at a playground, the nightfall kingdom of 17-year-olds stealing kisses, buckled my knees with sense memory – but where the film delivers its knockout punch is in its portrait of a budding alcoholic.
High school senior Sutter (Teller) describes himself as the life of the party, and, for once, the bluster of youth is bang-on. He radiates charisma and has an endless appetite for whatever life has dished up for him in the moment, shoveling in sensation and experience by the forkful and washing it down with a cold beer. It takes a while to catch on that it’s actually the other way around. It’s the drinking that starts his day and steers his course into night – happy-go-lucky and going off the rails.
One such night ends with Sutter passed out in the front yard of a classmate named Aimee (The Descendants’ Woodley). Quiet, studious, and barefaced, she’s too subtle to have caught his tractor-beam gaze before; he literally had to fall asleep on her lawn to wake up to her charms. At first he has an angle – an ex-girlfriend he’d like to make jealous – but soon, he’s courting Aimee in earnest. Together, they build a perfectly round bubble, until it turns pear-shaped.
I won’t spoil what happens between them, other than to say it knocked the wind out of me; at an advance screening, you could actually hear the audience members struggle their way back toward even breathing. The effect on Sutter is less abrupt. Teller, in a star-making performance, plays the aching Sut like light imperceptibly shifting at sunset; it’s a shock to discover it’s suddenly pitch-black out. In the end, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with the darkness. Director James Ponsoldt (Smashed), his writing team (working from Tim Tharp’s young adult novel), and an outstanding cast have crafted a delicate, eloquent picture of believable humans in so many gradations of hurt, but it stops just shy of catharsis.
See "It Doesn't Always Get Better," August 16, for an interview with James Ponsoldt.