Review: ‘The Edge Of Seventeen’

I don’t envy today’s teens. In my day (excuse me while I step on my soapbox) we didn’t have to worry about tweets, selfies, or Facebooking. If you wanted to get a person’s attention you passed notes in class. There was no instant messages with cute GIFs and XOXO’s. Grams were for using the metric system, not for sharing photos Insta-ntly.

As a child of the ’80s, and being part of the last graduating class of the 20th century (damn I’m old), this review will serve as a written record that I survived the perils of high school. While my school may not have been Hogwarts, I did spend a time or two with The Breakfast Club.

If you are old enough to know that movie, then you know John Hughes made films that spoke to teenagers. They were pretty much how-to guides on helping to define adolescence in the 1980s. Yet, no matter the decade, you can watch them and find something relateable. Plus, if you’ve seen the comedies as much as me, you have probably crossed paths with a neo maxi zoom dweebie and are now old enough to raid Barry Manilow’s wardrobe.

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Kelly Fremon Craig may very well be a successor to Hughes. Her directing debut, The Edge of Seventeen, combines humor and pathos and the angst-filled moments that have been staples of the teen dramedy. With characters that are self-centered, too-important, or just plain awkward in finding where they belong. But Hughes barely scratched the surface on the darker sides of adolescence. Craig updates the characterizations with a coming-of-age story told from a female perspective with star Hailee Steinfeld in a breakout performance.

Nadine (Steinfeld) is deserving of the outsider label she wears. Able to alienate all of those around her, save for a singular friend, this high school junior creates her own path to survival (or is it self destruction?). Her ailment isn’t stressing over homework or finding a Jake Ryan; it’s trying to feel comfortable in her own skin. She goes about it all wrong, of course, and it doesn’t help that her older brother, Darian (Everybody Wants Some!!‘s Blake Jenner), is the popular one – a jock that carries favor with the entire student body.

The death of her father pushed Nadine in isolating herself from others, including her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), Mona, who clearly favors the level-headed golden boy. Thankfully, she has her friendship with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Until Nadine’s world implodes: a series of bad decisions results in Krista and Darian hooking up. Excuse me while I grab my phone and post the letters SMH.

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Nadine is not the nicest of characters. So it’s easy to understand why you won’t take to her at first. But look at the character not from an outsider’s perspective; slip into her blue jacket that clashes with her plaid skirt and see it from her POV. It is from this perspective she gains our sympathy. Nadine is whip-smart and uses humor as a defense mechanism. Her best sparring partner is Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson as the dead pan history teacher). The lunchtime conversations between Steinfeld and Harrelson are among some of the film’s best moments.

The introduction of Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who sits next to Nadine in history class, could have easily led The Edge of Seventeen to teenage rom-com, but Craig sticks with its coming-of-age narrative and the film is all the better. Nadine sees Krista’s relationship with her brother as betrayal. She remains with the out-crowd while Krista joins the in-crowd. Hurt and deflated, Nadine is mad at her, her brother – pretty much everyone. Except for Erwin, who harbors a plain-as-day crush. Szeto channels Jon Cryer’s Duckie from Pretty in Pink but he doesn’t carry the same sense of entitlement that Duckie did with Andie. Erwin is nerdy but cute and charismatic. Casting did a bang up job with finding Szeto. It also helps that he isn’t written to be a walking cliché of Asian characters. Look, I like Long Duk Dong’s vocal inflections and clowning in Sixteen Candles, but even I know Hughes dropped the ball by playing up the stereotypes.

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Beyond Steinfeld’s great performance as the misanthropic Nadine, where The Edge of Seventeen really shines is in tone. Just like navigating the halls of high school, there is a certain ebb and flow. Craig presents a film where it is okay to laugh at Nadine telling Mr. Bruner that she’s going to kill herself – we know she doesn’t mean it – having already dug the hole after sending a regrettable text message. Yet we also feel deeply as Nadine tries to turn her life around. For a teenage girl some days are better than others and the most trivial thing can seem like the end of the world. Craig understands this concept and delivers an accomplished first feature. The Edge of Seventeen is is one of the best teen movies in recent memory and will remain a culture touchstone for millennials.

Score: 8/10

Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Writer: Kelly Fremon Craig
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick, Woody Harrelson, Hayden Szeto
Rating: R (for sexual content, language and some drinking – all involving teens)
Running Time: 104 minutes

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