The Edge of Seventeen, 2016.
Written and Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner, Haley Lu Richardson, Hayden Szeto, and Kyra Sedgwick.
High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.
Since the halcyon days of John Hughes thirty years back, the teen comedy has long been at its death knell, occasionally showing a flash of life, as if an inmate mid-hanging gasping for breath as their body spasms. Mean Girls was a gasp, as was Easy A. Yet a gasp is never enough. For every success, there are umpteen further failures, usually found in the bargain bin of your local express supermarket, artwork steeped in misogyny, tagline probably a joke about genitals. Yet The Edge of Seventeen is more than simply a gasp, it’s the rope breaking; it’s a plea deal. It breathes life into a genre long the spotty black sheep.
High school junior Nadine (an extraordinary Hailee Steinfeld) has always been cynical, helped in part by her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), a vice with whom Nadine bounces off with aplomb. When her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) leaves for the weekend to visit her dentist boyfriend, Nadine happens upon Krista and her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) in a situation most likely to scar, resulting in a chasm opening up between the two.
The plotting, although steeped in cliché and well worn ground previously trodden-the passing of a father, the outsider infatuated with the boy more popular, a mother daughter relationship worn away-somehow comes away anew, rejuvenated, thanks to a script bright and sparky yet totally unafraid of the melancholy.
Having failed to do her homework following the discovery of Krista and Darian, Nadine finds an excuse in her father’s passing 4 years earlier. She declares this to her teacher-played with a joyous, discouraging cynicism by Woody Harrelson – who responds sharply that he gives those with familial losses a timeframe of a year before the excuse expires.
Where grief is concerned in popular cinema-the loss of fathers in particular-it is shown rarely it truly is, a vulgar, often-comical mess. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig shows grief exactly as it is, something sad, something comical.
Yet it’s not a film that hinders on tragedy. Nadine may look up to her late father as a figure of hope, but it never defines her. Neither does her hope to lose her virginity, nor does her vaguely platonic friendship with Erwin (a brilliant Hayden Szoto). Even Krista, with whom it would be easy to discard as figure of resentment and sexual deviancy, is well rounded and interesting, with character flaws and a through line rare amongst coming of age comedies. All characters resemble actual people-be it for Nadine’s crush Nick (a delightfully sleazy Alexander Calvert) – who is little more than a total scumbag.
The pure joy of Steinfeld’s performance is almost too hyperbolic. A single eye-roll emotes more than most could hope for in a vast monologue, she has a face the camera adores. In a fair and just world, her performance would be plastered in the minds of all. She brings total, unbridled adoration to a character that, in the hands of most, would come off as little more than a needlessly pessimistic privileged white girl. In Nadine, there’s a character for which generations of teens can look up to.
There’s a parallel world where Steinfeld would rightly find herself in the midst of an awards push. Any moment she’s on screen-and she’s in every scene-she exuberates a rare warmth and brightness. As a comedic performance, it stands as one of the very best in recent memory; yet, it’s something far more. It’s a performance of vast maturity that only reinforces what we’ve known since her turn in True Grit.
The Edge of Seventeen is life-breathing cinema. Comparisons to John Hughes have been banded about in recent weeks; and at times it’s fair, yet it’s more than that, better than that. It’s a film at once hysterical, at once melancholy. Oh for a world in which it becomes culturally iconic. Oh for a world in which we band its name about like we do with the very best of coming-of-age comedies gone before.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★