Where many movies of its ilk would angle on a well-defined plot, with the character arcs serving as “subtext,” The Spectacular Now is entirely the story of Sutter Keely and his stunted, fits-and-starts emotional development. He introduces himself to us as an air-headed, hard-partying, hard-drinking popular kid, forced into introspection for the first time after getting dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson).
His friendship and eventual relationship with shy geek Aimee Finecky encourages him to take himself more seriously, but he has trouble figuring out what he wants from life in the long term, his drinking problem becomes more apparent, and the responsibility of being Aimee’s first boyfriend overwhelms him. The last third of the movie becomes almost punishing to watch, as Sutter realizes how similar he is to his estranged deadbeat father, gets cast aside by him during a reconciliation attempt, alienates Aimee, and misses the deadline for college applications.
Near the end of the movie, Sutter makes two major choices. First, he admits to his boss at the clothing store (Bob Odenkirk) that he can’t be trusted to work sober, and quits his job. Then, he ghosts Aimee as she’s expecting him to tag along with her on her move to Philadelphia, effectively ending their relationship by inaction. These two decisions point to Sutter’s standing at the end of the movie. He’s never been more conscious of his problems, but, instead of working through them, he has retreated into stewing in despair. He is still unable to see things with perspective. When he’s in pain, he still believes the pain will last forever. It’s hard for him to imagine any future at all, let alone one in which he has somehow fixed all the things he’s screwed up.