Teenage films have always been a cinematic staple for me. Whether they are quality films (like Heathers, Stand By Me), plain fun (Mean Girls, Easy A, Say Anything) or just plain silliness (Porky’s, American Pie), I’ve always found enjoyment in both entertainment value and nostalgia.
But the past few years, the portrayal of teenagers in film has become a lot more artificial, to the point that it’s obvious that these aren’t real characters, but caricatures. The situations and dialogue seem comprised of moments that could have only come out of committee meetings. Basically, being more about what people want to hear and see, instead of getting to the nitty-gritty of it.
Now we have the latest teenage dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, written/directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, starring the Oscar-nominated actress of the True Grit remake, Hailee Steinfeld and produced by the renowned James L. Brooks. So, does the film continue this recent trend or does it fix the problems of some recent teenage portrayals?
Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a 17 year-old junior, living a life of awkwardness as she trudges through high school. Saddled with a dramatic past, a much more successful sibling, Darian (Blake Jenner), a stressed out mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and her lack of social skills, her one solid rock in life was always her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), whom she’s been friends with since childhood.
That is until Nadine’s finds out that Darian is dating Krista. Feeling more alone than ever, she again crawls through the excruciating minutiae of high school, with only a huge crush with the handsome boy at school, Nick (Alexander Calvert) to distract from her current situation.
That is until she develops into a relationship with
myself a stuttering, yet thoughtful classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) and along with having so-called help from her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), she gradually realises that there mat be hope ahead after all.
When I heard that this film was written and directed by the screenwriter that wrote Post Grad, I have to admit, it did temper my expectations. But I am wholeheartedly happy to report that The Edge of Seventeen is one of the best films of the last year. And all of this goes down to Craig’s grounded direction, her witty and authentic script and wonderful performances from the entire cast.
What is great about the direction of the film is how authentic the script and its storytelling approach are. Most characters interact like real people and thankfully, teenagers talk like actual teenagers, which leads to some unapologetic and politically incorrect dialogue. And most of it is hilarious, witty and appropriately, real.
The only time that the film ends up sounding like a movie is whenever Woody Harrelson as the incredibly droll teacher, Mr. Bruner, shows up. But Harrelson slums his role (really, he looks like he’s putting zero effort into the role) so well, that he steals the show with his hilarious interactions with Steinfeld.
Another factor I liked about Craig’s direction is how she either lends a soft touch or subverts the cliches and tropes of the genre. For example, the supposed jerk of the film is cleverly subverted, since the motivations of the character are actually understandable, if not quite respectable. Another example is that some of the conclusions in the final act are executed in the subtlest of ways that rings true, like the arc between Nadine and her mother.
And best of all is that Craig and Steinfeld never soften the character of Nadine to the point where the character strives to be likable. Nadine is shown warts-and-all and the reasoning for her behaviour is also dealt with subversively, due to the fact that her behaviour was always present, and not suddenly triggered by some dramatic event.
But none of the storytelling and direction would work if it weren’t for the fantastic performances. Finally having another lead role she can sink her teeth into, Hailee Steinfeld nails the role of the highly opinionated, angst-ridden and socially awkward Nadine. Nuanced, genuine and sympathetic, Steinfeld shines whenever she’s on screen, which is awesome because she’s on it 95% of the time.
There’s a scene where Nadine reluctantly goes to a party with Krista and Darian, and when the two leave her to socialize, Steinfeld acts out loneliness and heartbreak without a single word. It also helps that she also works her comedic chops with aplomb, even when saddled with the most abrasive or the lamest insults involving calling someone out with a huge head.
The supporting cast are no slouches in their department. As already mentioned, Woody Harrelson is a hoot at Mr. Bruner, as he has some great interactions with Steinfeld and does it so effortlessly, you’d have to wonder if he just performed the role in his sleep. The same goes for Kyra Sedgwick, who has played this type of role a thousand times, and is still great as the increasingly stressed out mother.
Haley Lu Richardson makes it easy to understand why Nadine cares so much for her, while Blake Jenner is convincing as Darian, particularly during the scenes he shares with Steinfeld. The sibling relationship between the two is nicely developed and it pays off in a emotionally cathartic fashion that honestly made me shed a tear of two.
And last but definitely not least, there’s Hayden Szeto as Erwin. He completely sells the anxiety, awkwardness, the nervous tics and subtle longing, that I thought I was watching myself on screen. It was actually slightly scary to be honest.
As for flaws, there aren’t much, except for the story being slightly predictable once you see the pieces of the puzzle being set out. But the tropes are all dealt with nuance and subversiveness that the storytelling feels refreshing and new all the same.
Insightful, thoroughly well-written, amazingly acted, deservedly touching and downright hilarious, The Edge of Seventeen needs to be seen if we want to get more movies of this quality within the well trodden genre. Highly recommended!
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Edge of Seventeen hits Australian cinemas tomorrow, January 5th