A film review by Craig J. Koban November 26, 2016

RANK:  #24


2016, R, 104 mins.


Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Byrd  /  Haley Lu Richardson as Krista  /  Blake Jenner as Darian Byrd  /  Kyra Sedgwick as Mona Byrd  /  Woody Harrelson as Mr. Bruner  /  Hayden Szeto as Erwin Kim  /  Alexander Calvert as Nick Mossman

Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig

I've seen so many films like THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN over my many years as a film critic that the high school dramedy genre, for my tastes, has all but floundered into a critical life support stage of existence.  

It's a small scale miracle, then, that Kelly Fremon Craig's film (making her directorial debut) imbues so much revitalizing freshness into these types of stale and conventional coming of age stories.  So many movies about teenagers these days are either wantonly crude and mean spirited, whereas others seem to pathetically mime the sensibilities of better films from yesteryear to the point of plagiarism.  THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is so much more infinitely sharper and perceptive with its focus and in particular the way it respects its characters - young and old - with an atypically rendered nuance and texture. 

Superficially on paper, this film comes off as just as hackneyed and formulaic as any other teenage comedy that has certainly come before it.  However, the genius of THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is how it initially harnesses genre troupes, but then quickly retools them to defy our expectations.  The film's main adolescent heroine (if we can even call her that) Nadine (in a sublimely and finely tuned performance by Hailee Steinfeld, destined for her second Oscar nomination) is a proverbial troubled teen.  She's spunky and outgoing, but weirdly and paradoxically anti-social.  She's literate and well spoken, but often has great difficulty finding the right words to communicate with people around her.  And, like many a movie teenager before her, Nadine hyperbolically believes that everything in the entire world is conspiring against her.  The only person she ever felt close to as an intimate confidant was her father, but after he was tragically taken from her in a car accident she never fully mentally recovered from the trauma.



Nadine has other issues outside of a nagging sense of mourning over her father's demise.  Her older Darien (a very decent Blake Jenner, playing a variation of the character he inhabited in this past year's EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!) is an insanely popular and respected jock at her school, which leads to her resenting him to his core...mostly because she has not elevated herself to such an upper echelon social status.  Her animosity towards him hits a boiling point when he begins to date her BFF for life in Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), which propels her into a self-imposed tailspin of emotional implosion and causes her to make even worse choices in life.  Hell, she becomes such a powder keg of hostile antagonism that even her high school history teacher Mr. Bruner (a deadpanningly delightful Woody Harrelson) has literally had enough of her over the top dramatics.  When she comes to his class during his peaceful lunch hour away from students (one of many visits) and matter of factly tells him that she wants to kill herself, the frustrated teacher is so annoyed with being bothered so frequently by her during his time of peace that he responds by telling her that he's been forced by her actions to pen his own suicide note.  The film's drollest moments emerge with Nadine's incredulous reactions to Bruner's blunt force retorts, which usually involve words that few teachers would ever dare tell their students. 

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN has been labeled as "John Hughes-esque".  That's apt to a very small degree, but nevertheless is a large misnomer when describing this film as a whole.  The one area that this film edges out the many Hughes high school comedies of old is in its democratic handling of all of its characters.  A preponderance of the adult characters that populated the teen centric Hughes comedies were, for the most part, one note stooges without much depth.  In THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, Craig pays dutiful respect to all of the personas in her story - regardless of age - and affords them soulful complexity that's uncommon for this genre.   The easiest road most traveled route with, for example, the characters of Darien and Nadine's mother (Kyra Sedgwick) would be to paint them as broad caricatured stereotypes: the dumb uncaring jock sibling and the clueless and bumbling widowed mother.  Thankfully, the film appreciates them as flesh and blood people with their own respective set of insecurities and vulnerabilities.  The manner with which Craig understands the pratfalls of succumbing to genre archetypes with these characters and instead does everything she can to elevate her film above them is endlessly commendable.   

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN also goes, I would argue, darker and aims for the emotional juggler more than a handful of past Hughes films.  The level of dramatic truth that this film achieves at key moments is noteworthy, especially for how it systematically tries to blend laughs and pathos by typifying scene after scene with achingly honest strokes.  This film cements itself authentically in the microcosm of modern youth culture better than just about any I've seen as of late: It's very appropriately rated R, but not because it's a raunch filled orgy of disgusting bathroom humor and tasteless pratfalls involving bodily fluids.  It's R because its teen characters talk rough, tough, and dirty and the film believably approximates - whether we like it or not - the vocal cadences of today's kids.  This is not a sanitized look at adolescence through the hazy filter of a feel-good comedy: THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN captures the pain and struggles that young adults go through and how they try to find ways to evolve and become better people in the process...but the path on that journey, obviously enough, is anything but easy. 

Nadine makes for a thoroughly compelling case study in the film.  The script never goes out of its way to paint her in simplistically one note strokes, nor does it aggressively try to make her wholeheartedly likeable.  Nadine might be one of the more richly dimensional embodiments teen angst to occupy a film in the sense that's she's capable of being warm hearted and cordial while simultaneously doing and saying incredibly spiteful and hostile things to people without a care in the world as to the repercussions.  She harbors an impulsive meanness and unattractive cynicism, and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN never once sugar-coats this character to make her more easily tolerable.  This is all driven home in Steinfeld's tremendously attuned performance, arguably her finest work since her Oscar nominated turn in the Coen Brothers' TRUE GRIT.  That film established a bravura talent in the making, and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN all but cements her as the finest young actress of her generation.  She's so penetratingly real in every sobering and revelatory scene she occupies.   

I'm 41-years-old.  I haven't been a teenager for well over twenty years.  Yet, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN spoke personally to me about my own tumultuous years growing up as well as universally testifying to the trials and tribulations that all of us, I think, have no doubt gone through during the most awkward stages of our lives.  It's so decidedly rare to witness a film like this - regardless of genre - paying meticulous attention to its characters - warts and all - and allow for all of them to occupy a story that dives deeper into both the joyful and depressing truths of not only growing up, but also what it means to be an adult trying to cope with a teen child trying to discover who they are in the world.  There's a key scene near the end of the film between Nadine and her mother - communicating via text messages during a tense moment that could prove explosive - that cuts to the core of this film's main message.  In a lesser screenplay it could have devolved into shameful manipulative melodrama, but Craig is too perceptive to allow for that to happen.  The brief exchange between the pair highlights how both are willing to impart trust in the other while learning to become independent and self actualized people.  In a way, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN becomes a chronicle of growth for the troubled mother and daughter.

And how ultimately refreshing is that?




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