REVIEW: The Edge of Seventeen [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 104 minutes | Release Date: November 18th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: STX Entertainment
Director(s): Kelly Fremon Craig
Writer(s): Kelly Fremon Craig

“You should look out for run-on sentences”

If you ever wondered what a John Hughes movie would look like without the cutesy cliché and overblown 1980s caricatured comedic appeal, Kelly Fremon Craig‘s The Edge of Seventeen is it. So don’t treat the talk about it being a “twenty-first century Hughes” film as hyperbole or a slight because the shoe fits its depiction of angst-fueled, hilarious embarrassment. What it lacks is the need to feed into stereotype, sentiment, and melodrama that weigh reality down into fairy tale. This is the life of a seventeen-year old stuck within a steady stream of tragedy and loneliness. It’s an embodiment of that self-loathing and self-pity we’ve all felt and worked (are working) hard to combat. It’s not about happy endings. It’s about a hopeful dose of optimistic potential.

That doesn’t mean it won’t initially look the opposite. For a good portion of the film we do find ourselves transported back in time with throwback wardrobe and an overblown sense of drama. The moment we meet Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is therefore the moment that makes or breaks what Craig is doing because the character must express her abject despair for us to believe her cry for help is authentic. What follows through her relationships with a perfect brother she hates (Blake Jenner‘s Darian), mother who dotes on him and sighs exasperatedly at her (Kyra Sedgwick‘s Mona), and one solitary friend (Haley Lu Richardson‘s Krista) could easily devolve into fluff if Steinfeld can’t grab us in that moment of desperation. She knocks it out of the park.

Into Mr. Bruner’s (Woody Harrelson) office she barges at lunch: eyes glassy but not yet tear-filled and words spewing in rapid fire about suicide and the need for an adult to know. Is it real? Is it a joke in poor taste? The simple fact we legitimately don’t know is what makes it so captivating. Steinfeld isn’t playing it for laughs although her lack of breath earns laughter. She isn’t playing it for tears either despite there being genuine pain and torment on her face. Accurately reading the scene isn’t helped by Harrelson’s sardonic humor, although it does add another layer to whether or not this is the first time Nadine has lamented about death. What could have brought here her? I honestly wanted to find out.

True to life, it isn’t one thing. Her father died four years back, her best friend started dating her brother, and the boy of her dreams (Alexander Calvert‘s Nick) may possibly, potentially, improbably reciprocate a modicum of interest and therefore wield the ability to hammer the final nail into her coffin via rejection. This could all fall prey to convenience and reactionary eye-rolls under less-sure hands bowing to convention and mainstream pressures. The way Mona asks her daughter, “What’s wrong?” before steamrolling the first word of reply with her own troubles is enough to beg for a sitcom laugh-track. But Craig fights that notion. This isn’t a gimmick; it’s real. Mona wasn’t built to be a single mom and yet she’s pulled through. Her tact simply needs work.

This is how the entirety of the film plays out. Everyone fills a role that Hughes so expertly mined for his comedies and yet aren’t doing it in a manufactured for laughs or tears kind of way. They’re honest in their reactions instead, letting frustration and anger get the better of them to say mean things or sarcastically agree to knee-jerk descriptions that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re beholden to Nadine’s viewpoint for most of the runtime and what happens fits that narrow vantage. We don’t see Darian and Krista behind closed doors dealing with Nadine’s over-reactions. We only see what she sees: they are at fault. We know this to be false, but we believe it anyway because she’s the lead. We care about her.

The film embraces this seemingly narcissistic filter because it renders the revelation that everyone is as depressed, lonely, and overwhelmed as she that much more resonate. When we finally are able to acknowledge Mona and Darian are drowning in equal measure to Nadine, the gravity of their circumstances comes into focus. Craig is dealing with more than puppy love, low self-esteem, and petty jealousies. She’s injected clinical depression, coping mechanisms, lashing out, and self-destruction. She’s delivered all the pieces to make Nadine’s life a living Hell as well as those to escape. Compassion is found in the least likely of places and love is literally staring her in the face. Nadine needs to grow up and that’s only possible through pain, guilt, and regret.

This level of honesty is both surprising and refreshing. Nadine isn’t some wannabe “mean girl” talking a mile a minute in woe is me banter. It might be small but I think the best moment of the whole film comes when Krista has had enough and tells Nadine to shut up. The look of pure mortification on Steinfeld’s face stops everything in its tracks because we realize she isn’t angry with her friend or the situation. She’s embarrassed in herself. She’s so uncertain about who she is that this reaction freezes her as though this horrible truth she feels about herself has finally been corroborated by the outside world. The reason she is so depressed and alone stems from the belief that she’s worthless. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

But this is teenage living in an era of cyber bullying and instant communication. You can declare your love to someone miles away via Facebook and regret doing so because the declaration will be forever saved in a way that he can share with your enemies. Every little thing you do is scrutinized; every attempt to break free thwarted (even if it’s a matter of you lacking the confidence to turn things around). And just as everything you loved seemingly disappears in a cloud of dark, noxious gas, things to grab hold of are ignored because you’re trapped in the sadness of failure. Who wouldn’t want their best friend to become their sister/brother-in-law? Who could ignore the kindness of a stranger providing what you need without even asking?

Sixteen Candles can’t help feeling dated with teens that have lived twenty-first century adolescences. The Edge of Seventeen therefore gives them an equivalent experience. Yes it’s rated-R and has more than a few f-bombs, but it’s for teens nonetheless. A reveal with Harrelson’s Mr. Bruner also calls to mind Garden State and the comparison makes sense. Zach Braff spoke to thirty-somethings while Craig reaches out to teens. She doesn’t pander or hold back and even provides a perfect example of how not to whitewash with an Asian American who isn’t beholden to race (Hayden Szeto as Erwin is a delightful highlight). It may run long, but it must to provide Mona and Darian their own opportunities for growth. Steinfeld’s Nadine is the focus, but she’s hardly alone.

[1] (Left to Right) Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson. Photographer: Murray Close ©2015 STX Productions, LLC. All rights reserved.
[2] (Left to Right) Haley Lu Richardson and Blake Jenner in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN ©2015 STX Productions, LLC. All rights reserved.
[3] (Left to Right) Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto. Photographer: Murray Close ©2015 STX Productions, LLC. All rights reserved.

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