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Actress Shailene Woodley ready to do fame her way

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in "The Spectacular Now." A24 Films photo

"This is Benjamin,” said the poster for “The Graduate,” next to a photo of Dustin Hoffman staring at Anne Bancroft’s leg in a silk stocking. “He’s a little worried about his future.”

It’s hard to believe now, but when that classic movie was released in the watershed year of 1967, it was divisive. Older audiences and critics thought that the protagonist was a lazy creep. Younger ones felt that he was a successor to Holden Caulfield, a pure spirit in a world of phonies.

Now meet Sutter (Miles Teller). He’s about to graduate from high school in small-town Georgia and he’s not worried about much of anything. Instead of living in the world, he lives in the moment — “the spectacular now.” If that means flunking his geometry class, smuggling booze into his part-time job at a clothing store and losing his bubbly blonde girlfriend to a civic-minded football star, so what?

In other words, he’s a lazy creep.

The novel twist of “The Spectacular Now,” a Sundance-winning indie based on a book by Tim Tharp, is that the protagonist is popular. The pure spirit is his unexpected love interest, a bookworm named Aimee (Shailene Woodley).

Sutter becomes aware of his wallflower classmate when he awakens on her lawn after a night of drinking and driving. Aimee helps him find his car while she delivers newspapers, then later she helps him with his geometry homework and shares her sketchbook of anime drawings. Soon, on a keg-party impulse, he invites her to the prom — even as he continues to text and flirt with Cassidy (Brie Larson).

Teller imbues Sutter with a certain charm, and the script gives the character some context for his dysfunction: a struggling single mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an alcoholic runaway dad (Kyle Chander), a sell-out sister (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead). But without Woodley, this drunken boat would capsize. So flinty in “The Descendents,” she’s fragile here, and the possibility that Aimee might get crushed by this blockhead gives “The Spectacular Now” a particular noxiousness.

(And we’ll note that the book was set in suburban Oklahoma City, not director James Ponsoldt’s hipster hometown of Athens, Ga., while the moment of truth happened in St. Louis, not Philadelphia.)

There’s much to appreciate here. Like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which had a stronger sense of its place in the world, this coming-of-age movie should appeal to smart, sensitive young people who haven’t been exposed to the better examples of the genre. If I’m an old phony for loving “The Graduate” and quibbling with “The Spectacular Now,” take it with a grain of salt — and a slice of lemon.


What “The Spectacular Now” • Two and a half stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:35 • Content Teen alcohol use, strong language and sexuality • Where Plaza Frontenac

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.