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Review: The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig

Premise: Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is an awkward high school student whose social life is turned upside down when her only friend (Haley Lu Richardson) begins dating her older brother (Blake Jenner).

What Works: Movies about adolescence are nothing new but few films have done it as well as The Edge of Seventeen. This film manages a tricky balance. The audience for these movies is split between young people who are going through this tumultuous period of their lives and older audiences who have moved on and in all likelihood look back on their youth with a mix of amusement and embarrassment. The Edge of Seventeen manages to satisfy both audiences with a combination of wry humor and authentic teenage angst. Nadine has a Daria-like wit, ridiculing others while suffering through awkward and embarrassing situations. The teenage life of The Edge of Seventeen recognizes the melodramatic nature of Nadine’s anxiety and it has fun with it. Unlike movies such as Twilight, which confirm and enable teenage self-absorption, The Edge of Seventeen is amused by it and Nadine gradually realizes the selfishness of her behavior and the impact it has on everyone else. But The Edge of Seventeen also doesn’t discount the intensity or truthfulness of those feelings. It takes Nadine’s loneliness and insecurity seriously and that combination of earnestness and wisdom allows this film to present an empathetic portrait of adolescence. In fact, empathy is the defining trait of this movie. The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t have a villain but it still has conflict. Nadine is really her own worst enemy and she sees herself as an ugly duckling. Her self-pity ought to make her obnoxious but Hailee Steinfeld makes Nadine into the most interesting and watchable suburban teenage character since Emma Stone in Easy A. That empathy extends to the rest of the cast. In a lesser movie the older brother would be a dumb jock stereotype but in The Edge of Seventeen he is a full human being with flaws and anxieties of his own. Krista, the longtime friend of Nadine who is now involved with her brother, is played well by Haley Lu Richardson. She’s not depicted as a traitor and Krista is torn up by her feelings for these people; the evolution of their friendship is smartly done. The film also includes some impressive adult characters, namely Kyra Sedgwick as the mother and Woody Harrelson as the history teacher. They are also multidimensional characters and Harrelson gets some of the best and funniest moments in the film.

What Doesn’t: The conclusion of The Edge of Seventeen is a compromise between reality and the storytelling conventions of teenage dramas. The Edge of Seventeen works Nadine up to a point of crisis in which she has alienated virtually everyone in her life. But upon reaching the climax, the filmmakers struggle to credibly walk her back. Her reconciliation is less an outgrowth of the plot and more a teen drama cliché and it is the one disingenuous part of this film. Nadine has clearly experienced some sort of epiphany but it’s unclear what that is. There are a few elements of this film’s depiction of high school that don’t ring true. Apparently Nadine’s high school has no truancy policy and she wanders on and off of campus as she pleases; this is quite different from the prison-like atmosphere of contemporary high schools. There is also no denying that The Edge of Seventeen defines Nadine in terms of her relationship to a boy; her blossoming friendship with Erwin (Hayden Szeto) is sweet and gives the movie a way to concretize her newfound stability. But the finale of the movie operates within the conventions of teen romances in which a young protagonist’s sense of self-worth is tied to her relationship status.

Bottom Line: The Edge of Seventeen is worthy of comparison to high school movies such as The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, and American Pie. This is a smart and nuanced film about the anxieties of teenage years and it has a terrific central performance by Hailee Steinfeld.

Episode: #625 (December 11, 2016)