The Edge of Seventeen

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The Edge of Seventeen  (2016)    STX Entertainment/Comedy-Drama    RT: 104 minutes    Rated R (sexual content, language, some drinking- all involving teens)    Director: Kelly Fremon Craig    Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig    Music: Atli Orvarsson    Cinematography: Doug Emmett    Release date: November 18, 2016 (US)    Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto, Alexander Calvert.     

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 People over the age of 25 tend to recoil when they hear the term “teen movie”. It’s always been like that. Of course, what you have to understand is that teen movies have changed over the years. Let me explain. Back in my heyday, the term was applied to two different types of movies: (1) dirty-minded comedies featuring horny, sex-obsessed teens trying to “score” (e.g. Porky’s, Joysticks and Private School) and (2) the early John Hughes oeuvre (from Sixteen Candles to Some Kind of Wonderful). The latter films generally received good notices because Hughes had an eye and ear for the way teens really acted and talked. Many in my generation still revere his movies.

 Today, teen movies generally feature generic actors playing vapid characters attached- both surgically and psychically from the looks of it- to their smart phones. It’s reached the point where they barely make eye contact with other actors in the same scene. I guess it’s okay though since teen viewers barely look at the screen; they’re too busy texting, tweeting and whatever else. Today’s teen movies pretty much consist of YA adaptations, tepid romances and moronic unfunny comedies. Those are the ones that play mainstream. The good ones are found on the arthouse circuit. Movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. You can add The Edge of Seventeen to that short list.

 The-Edge-of-Seventeen-2016It stars Hailee Steinfeld (Pitch Perfect 2) ad Nadine, a socially awkward high school junior wallowing in misery and self-loathing. She compensates for her lack of social skills with a sharp, biting wit that declares she’s the smartest person in the room and everybody else is an idiot. Disliked by her peers, things at home aren’t much better with her narcissistic widowed mother (Sedgwick, The Closer) and golden boy older brother Darian (Jenner, Everybody Wants Some) who can do no wrong. Nadine goes into a full emotional tailspin when her only friend Krista (Richardson, The Bronze) becomes romantically involved with Darian.

 One of Nadine’s allies is her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Harrelson, the Hunger Games movies), who’s sick and tired of her barging in on him during his lunch period. When she announces her intention to kill herself, he replies that her constant intrusions on his personal time make him suicidal as well. Her only other ally is Erwin (newcomer Szeto), a slightly nerdy Asian guy with a crush on her. Nadine is so wrapped up in herself that she doesn’t see how much he likes her. She’d like to hook up with this guy Nick (Calvert, Arrow), a handsome rebel who occasionally shows up for school. Why do they always go for the bad boy types?

The Edge of Seventeen, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (Post Grad), is both funny and tragic. Most importantly, it all feels real. Craig, making her directorial debut here, doesn’t sugarcoat or trivialize any aspect of being a teenager, a time when everything happening in your life is super-important. Like all teens, Nadine thinks she’s the only one with problems and everybody else’s life is better. It’s the most honest portrayal of a teenager I’ve seen in a long time. When Nadine starts acting out, it’s clear that her actions will eventually put her directly in the path of danger. In this instance, it’s precipitated by one of the genre’s most used conventions, the accidental sending of an embarrassing text to the boy she likes. It eventually segues into another old trope, a montage of Nadine hurriedly trying on outfits and getting ready for a date, only this time it’s laced with melancholy rather than levity. Let’s just say that her “date” (if you call it that) with Nick ends with Nadine in tears. By not playing this scenario for laughs, Craig gives The Edge of Seventeen its edge.

 Of course, the movie would not have as well as it does without an actress like Steinfeld in the lead. She’s the heir apparent to the teen outcast throne once occupied by Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Heathers). I always knew she’d be a star from the moment I first saw her in 2010’s True Grit remake. She consistently shows she’s one of the finest young actors working in film today even if the movie she’s in is subpar- e.g. Three Days to a Kill, Romeo and Juliet. She gets off many of the movie’s best lines- e.g. “I had the worst thought: I have to spend the rest of my life with myself.” It’s not only funny in an acerbic kind of way, it’s also very truthful. In real life, you’d probably hate somebody like Nadine. In The Edge of Seventeen, you come to feel for her because you understand her mindset. You get to know her intimately. This is what happens when performance and writing are fully realized and in perfect sync.

 The rest of the cast does a fine job as well. Harrelson meets Steinfeld verbal jab-for-verbal jab in their scenes together. Jenner is perfectly cast as the strong, good-looking star of the family who quietly resents having to look after his mom and sister, cleaning up the emotional messes they leave in their wake. Richardson is very good as the best friend starting to come into her own socially leaving behind a resentful and jealous Nadine. Almost everything about The Edge of Seventeen is pitch perfect. Its only small misstep is an ending that’s a little too pat. Some might even see it as a cop-out but let me ask you this. Would you prefer to leave the theater depressed?

 I do like that the emphasis is always on character rather than stupid hijinks, crude humor or the soundtrack. Whereas so many teen-oriented movie come with a soundtrack vying for a position in the Top 40, The Edge of Seventeen downplays the music. Craig makes good use of the music that’s in the movie but never at the expense of character development or dialogue. Her movie is funny, intelligently written, insightful and honest. It’s the best teen movie I’ve seen this year.

 

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