The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
You’re only young once … is it over yet?
Bearing no relation to the Stevie Nicks ’80s rock ballad of the same name, The Edge of Seventeen is the latest coming-of-age high school dramedy reminiscent of those time-honored John Hughes classics such as The Breakfast Club (1985) or Sixteen Candles (1984). True, this sub-genre has made a bit of a comeback of late, what, with films like Easy A (2010) — which sorta launched Emma Stone’s stardom — or 2015’s The Duff examining the struggles and growing pains of teenagers living in a post-internet world; but this one is perhaps a little different.
Endearing, empathetic, sweet and sincere, The Edge of Seventeen is a performance-driven character-profile exploring a needy 17-year-old self-loathing narcissist, Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld), who feels as though she’s all alone in the unforgiving world, lacking the right emotional tools to ‘hack it’ (so to speak), not having made peace with the one-two punch that was hitting puberty and losing her beloved father round about at the same time.
Just like most Hughes imitators, the narrative is guided by the voice-over of our protagonist, the movie opening up one lunchtime, with Nadine frantically barging into the classroom of Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), her snarky history teacher, and then hysterically revealing that she is going to ‘off herself.’ As she gives ‘Sir’ her hard-luck life story, we discover that Nadine’s days (while never easy) have taken a dramatic turn, having recently spiraled into out-of-control proportions, the unnerved teen convinced that her shattered social-circle and rocky family-life were beyond repair.
You see, the untimely death of her father, Tom (Eric Keenleyside), had, some four years back, sent Nadine into a deep depression, her dear daddy being the only one person who could comfort the withdrawn young girl, having the power to make the self-conscious Nadine feel safe, loved and secure. Having ‘somehow’ survived the barrel of knocks that life had thrown her way — the trials and tribulations of adolescence, along with always being second best to her ‘all-star’ older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), in the gene and popularity pool — Nadine’s latest dilemma proved too much to handle as it involved the only other person (much like her father) who had always been there for her: Nadine’s anchor, her best (and only) friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who pulled her out of the darkness at a very young age. With the girls’ inseparable bond ‘broken,’ Krista falling for Nadine’s ‘golden boy’ brother (however innocent this relationship may have seemed), the exasperated youngster lashes out at everyone around her — and that’s including her well-meaning but absent-minded single mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), who, too, has problems of her own — Nadine having reached the point where she ‘just can’t take it anymore!’
The directorial debut for writer Kelly Fremon Craig — who previously penned Alexis Bledel’s Post Grad (2009) — and produced by the legendary James L. Brooks — the guy behind famed television series The Simpsons (1989) — The Edge of Seventeen brings a refreshing new voice to this age-old genre, exploring that fragile passage into maturity with a fresh set eyes (and lungs) — even if this view is a conceited, self-loathing one.
Be that as it may, the uber-talented Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit (2010), simply ‘crushes it’ as Nadine, Steinfeld’s charisma the sole reason why such a stubborn egotistical loudmouth actually becomes a character audiences grow to care about. Tapping into the chaos of a teenager’s psyche, Steinfeld navigates this messy (often complex) territory in an authentic and insightful manner — the awkwardness, the angst and that juvenile insensitivity, Nadine often hammering below-the-belt with ‘hits’ like brashly mocking Mr. Bruner for being bald-headed then clumsily trying to repair the insult. But the former child star’s full-hearted portrayal is a bracingly honest one, Steinfeld’s Nadine, despite being quite unlikable at times, earning the viewer’s respect the deeper the picture plods along, the 20-year-old actress-musician also showcasing her impeccable knack for comedy, Ms. Steinfeld literally working as the beating heart of the movie — I’m guessing she may earn a solid nomination come Oscar season.
Likewise, Craig’s sharp screenplay is as direct, alert and raw as its leading lady — though sometimes lacking that self-awareness present in other modern-day teen-centered films — the narrative painting the hardships of maturing (and those lessons learnt along the way) in a candid and entertaining light — think heartaches, betrayals and the first pangs of love. And although set in the digital age, the flick goes beyond purely referencing contemporary technology — be it social-media, texting or other popular fads — rather, it captures the iGeneration itself, who are a by-product of today’s techno-heavy society, Craig writing three-dimensional characters with 21st Century hopes, dreams and insecurities; and while none of these support players break stereotype, they’re all wonderfully drawn out by the film’s A-grade cast.
Haley Lu Richardson, Split (2016), is excellent as Krista, who’s unjustly vilified by Nadine for following her heart and wanting to ‘move on’ with her own life, even if it means building a relationship with Nadine’s brother, Darian — as difficult as this may have been for her bestie — Blake Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), who plays Darian, giving a nuanced performance, too, this sport’s star proving to be more genuine and ‘broken’ than initially perceived. The standout of the secondary players, however, is Nadine’s dorky admirer, Erwin Kim, young Chinese-Canadian actor Hayden Szeto (a relative newcomer on the showbiz scene) rendering the smitten classmate (who sits beside Nadine) with a wide-eyed sense of zeal, his adorable, hopelessly awkward ramblings and nerdy eccentricities making him easy to root for — Szeto a real scene stealer.
Similarly, the adult co-stars don’t defy cliché, but are equally charming. Nadine’s unlikely mentor/ reluctant ‘sounding board,’ Mr. Bruner, is the ‘romanticized’ teacher archetype — though, while counseling the vulnerable Nadine, he does breach every ‘no-no’ in the education handbook — veteran Woody Harrelson, Zombieland (2009), imbuing the educator with deadpan humor, charm and surprising depth, while Nadine’s misguided mother Mona, who’s desperately trying to hold it all together, played by an admirable Kyra Sedgwick — from television’s The Closer (2005) — shines in her handful of scenes.
In regards to production, The Edge of Seventeen relishes in its minimalist setting, filmmaker Craig staging most of the action in and around middle-class suburbia; from lean high school hallways to teen-affordable hangout joints, cinematographer Doug Emmett, Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), keeping the colour subdued, too, the movie’s grounded visual style evocative of those John Hughes classics it strives to invoke.
Serving up a handful of laughs while telling an emotionally resonant, infinitely truthful coming-of-age story that, well, captures the essence of being 17, The Edge of Seventeen raises the bar on this still-booming genre, the film destined to become an instant classic, standing out amongst its peers. If The Edge of Seventeen verifies anything, it’s that both Hailee Steinfeld and writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig have a bright future ahead. I guess now we understand why Peter Pan never wanted to grow up — sheesh!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner