Review – The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick, Hayden Szeto, Woody Harrelson
The 1980s was the golden era of the teen movie. It was the era of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, of Pretty in Pink and Say Anything. It was the time when John Hughes was king. The market for teen movies has remained but the offerings since have been more hit than miss. The Edge of Seventeen, the new film from first time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, under the watchful eye of producer James L. Brooks, won’t take its place among the classics of the genre but is one of the better ones.
In the mind of seventeen-year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) there are two types of people: those who radiate confidence and naturally excel at life, and those who wish the first lot would die in a big explosion. She is very much one of the latter. Despite her intelligence, socially, nothing seems to come easy to her, and her insecurity manifests itself as hostility. It is made all the worse by the fact her brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a tall, handsome athlete, is clearly one of the former. Thankfully Nadine has Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend. Her only friend. Since the passing of her father, with whom she was very close, Nadine has been dependent on Krista. But when Krista starts going out with Darian, Nadine’s refusal to accept the relationship means she finds herself alone.
While Nadine feels like her world is crumbling around her, many of the narrative beats in The Edge of Seventeen have a familiar ring to them. Craig calls on a number of the regular tropes and cliches of the teen coming-of-age genre: the dramas of teenage friendship, fraught relationships with parents, there is even the good guy who is trapped in the friend-zone while the protagonist only has eyes for the bad boy who we all know is not going to be good for her. But while we have seen these all before, the nature of the teenage experience is that everything feels like the end of the world and you feel like you are the first person who has ever had to deal with them. There is an authenticity to the way Nadine’s experience is presented, perhaps drawn from the fact that The Edge of Seventeen is one of relatively few teen dramas to be written and directed by a woman.
Hailee Steinfeld burst onto the scene as a 13 year old with an Oscar-nominated performance in the Coen brothers’True Grit and while she has had a solid career since, with successful films like Begin Again and Pitch Perfect 2, The Edge of Seventeen is the first role since True Grit that has really asked something of her talent. Nadine is talkative, lonely, vulnerable, insecure and self-absorbed. In other words, she is a teenager. She thinks the world is out to get her. What makes her performance so strong is that she, along with Craig’s writing, walks a tightrope with this character, keeping the audience on her side while pushing her, at times, into quite unlikeable territory. She treats people poorly, particularly those who care about her. The primary journey The Edge of Seventeen finds Nadine on is one towards empathy, towards the realisation that other people also have struggles and needs, many of them the same as hers.
Besides Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson is at his dry best, as Mr. Bruner, Nadine’s history teacher and less-than-enthusiastic confidant. The scenes between the two, where Nadine bursts into his room during lunch breaks, interrupting his moment of solace to unload the details of her latest mortification, are among the films high points. Hayden Szeto, as the admiring but overlooked Erwin, is also an endearing presence in his scenes with Steinfeld.
While The Edge of Seventeen has its share of very funny moments, it is not an all out, joke-joke-joke comedy (though that is the impression that the marketing campaign seems to be trying to give). Rather, it is a sincere film which treats the teenage experience respectfully rather than ironically, treating both its mountains and its molehills seriously without seeking to satirise or belittle. Craig has produced a film that will speak powerfully to a youth audience, while reminding older viewers how lucky they are to no longer be teenagers.
Review by Duncan McLean
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