By Aaron Rourke ( Melbourne, Australia)
Standing out from the contemporary crowd merely for treating its young characters as human beings rather than stereotyped cut-outs, normally placed onscreen to throw crudely crafted humour at its audience, The Edge of Seventeen is a refreshingly entertaining addition to the teen genre. A loving ode to the oeuvre of the late, great John Hughes, this will certainly resonate with everyone who has gone through the pains of being a teenager.
The story opens with Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) rushing into the classroom of her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who is trying to enjoy a quiet lunch break. Threatening suicide, Nadine begins to describe to her sardonic teacher the reasons why she is in such a frantic state of mind.
Nadine, recently turning seventeen, is still deeply affected by the death of her father Tom (Eric Keenleyside), who suffered a fatal heart attack when she was only thirteen. Tom was a levelling force between Nadine and her neurotic mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), who would criticise her daughter at every turn, while forever praising older brother Darien. Without Tom to offer constant encouragement, Nadine noticeably withdraws from the world around her, except Krista, the one person who seems to understand her completely.
When Nadine and Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) get drunk one night, the former is shocked to discover the next morning that her best friend has slept with Darien (Blake Jenner). Feeling betrayed, Nadine treats both with utter contempt, cutting ties with Krista who has provided a strong friendship over many years. This in-turn causes added friction between Nadine and her mother, who is also trying to get her life back on track.
The other matter that has Nadine in a stressed state is the crush she has on older student Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert), the requisite cool guy who works at the local pet store. Finding it difficult to approach him, Nadine’s awkwardness amplifies her feelings of low self-esteem, immediately considering herself unworthy of this student who is higher up the social ladder.
While she obsesses over Nick, Nadine is unaware of Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), the boy who sits next to her in class. Likeable and funny, Erwin harbours genuine feelings for Nadine, and is frustrated that she is oblivious to his affections.
With all these situations beginning to take their toll on Nadine (many of which are of her own doing), she feels that her world is about to come to an indignant end.
What surprises about The Edge of Seventeen is not only the carefully constructed look at its main protagonist, but also at the people who populate Nadine’s particular universe, generating a perceptiveness not normally associated with teen films in recent years. One of the film’s real strengths is not writing Nadine as a black-and-white creation, but instead offering a more three-dimensional person that, while not always likeable, is someone we can understand. Nadine’s behaviour is suitably erratic and illogical, just like any teenager going through that incomprehensible time in their life.
Steinfeld, who wowed audiences and critics with her Oscar-nominated performance in the Coen Brothers’ western True Grit (2010), delivers here her best turn since that memorable feature film debut. Steinfeld confidently and skilfully manages the difficult task of drawing sympathy towards her flawed character, who at times is her own worst enemy. One hopes that this supremely talented actor will be recognised with a nomination at this year’s Academy Awards.
Harrelson is a perfect foil for Steinfeld, using his distinctive persona to wonderful effect, playing an adult character who is aware that his bright student is trying to grapple with problems that seem huge and insurmountable. His deceptively flippant responses to Nadine’s explosive rants are hilarious. Szeto exhibits plenty of charm as Erwin, conveying naturally the frustrations of liking someone who generally doesn’t know you exist. Richardson is also a standout, handling Krista’s unusual dilemma with sensitivity and understanding, and Sedgwick makes sure Nadine’s mother is not just a one-dimensional, throwaway caricature.
Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, whose only other big screen credit is penning the 2009 comedy Post Grad, deserves high praise for treating the material with intelligence, observing and molding her characters with care, resulting in a movie full of truth and insight. The dialogue is hip and fast, but stems from a real connection to universal issues so many young people experience. Clearly inspired by 80’s teen master John Hughes (especially Pretty In Pink), Craig shows knowing respect towards the subject matter, and given how good this effort is, she could definitely become the modern equivalent of Amy Heckerling, who gave us the iconic, influential Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Clueless (1995).
Some criticism has been aimed at the film’s seemingly convenient ending, where everything appears to be wrapped up nicely. This is not however The Edge of Seventeen as directed by Larry Clark (of Kids and Bully fame), where a depressingly nihilistic meltdown is the only way to finish a story dealing with youthful characters. Craig intentionally wants to demonstrate that despite ill-judged decision making, which could easily ostracise Nadine from the general community as well as her own family members, lessons can be learned, and that a positive future can actually be a possibility. It is far from a pat ending, just one that offers legitimate hope.
One really wishes that The Edge of Seventeen did better at the U.S. box-office, as it is a smart, discerning film that deserves to be championed by a wide, appreciative audience. Better commercial success may have seen more films like this hit our screens, which would unquestionably be a great thing, so if it is screening at a theatre near you, please give it a chance. If John Hughes were alive today, he would give The Edge of Seventeen a big thumbs up.