Adolescence is a difficult time for us all. Our bodies change. Our friends change. Our interests change. For many, those changes feel less like the beautiful escape of a butterfly from its cocoon and more like the grotesque result of a werewolf humping a T-Rex. It’s awkward, hairy in the wrong places, and just doesn’t fit in anywhere. First-time director Kelly Fremon Craig absolutely nails this feeling of awkward isolation in The Edge of Seventeen, which she also wrote.
Graceless high school junior Nadine (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld) hates virtually everyone in the world except for her friend Krista (The Bronze’s Haley Lu Richardson). Friends since early childhood, there is no secret or concern they don’t share until Krista begins to date Nadine’s older brother Darian (Everybody Wants Some!!!’s Blake Jenner). Her foundation shaken, Nadine finds herself hopelessly alone and in search of direction. Though an accidental friendship with similarly awkward Erwin (Hayden Szeto) seems like a ray of hope, Nadine seems determined to carry her pain alone.
Top down, The Edge of Seventeen is a refreshing take on the teenage, coming-of-age drama. The actors are top-notch and the story is unfashionably honest. Edge earns its R-rating not from underage drinking, sex, or drug use, but from an honest, non-judgmental portrayal of growing up. It’s not glossy, nor does it have an agenda. Edge presents a group of people in a time of their lives that just generally sucks, while highlighting that this happens to everyone. It’s a shared loneliness that most folks never realize exists outside of their personal POV. Though this seems endlessly dour, Edge is jam-packed with organic hilarity that delight audiences over-and-again as they relive their own awkwardness. The levity and jaunty pace Edge maintains is due in equal parts to the focused script and compelling performances from the actors.
The story, as narrated by Nadine, zips. It’s not harried, but it doesn’t take it’s time either. Much like real life, each character reacts and deals with situations as they arise and then moves on. Keeping the pace up ensures that the darker moments never bring down the overall affable tone of Edge. The cast of Edge manages the heady drama inherent in Edge – loss, love, and finding personal identity – with immense ease. Steinfeld’s Nadine resides at the center of the entire story, making Steinfeld’s portrayal of her all the more impressive as audiences as Nadine is difficult to like. Every time audiences want to root against her or cackle at her misfortune, Steinfeld’s natural effervescence neutralizes this and immediately puts the audience back on her side. Also central to the story is Jenner’s Darian, though he’s not as heavily featured as Nadine. For his part, Jenner does the most with very little as his character shifts from estranged sibling to compatriot. As fantastic as all the performances are by the leads, there are two stand-outs from Edge: relative newcomer Szeto as Erwin and Oscar-nominated actor Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s history teacher, Mr. Bruner. Szeto is charmingly hilarious as Nadine’s potential suitor as he awkwardly attempts to befriend and get to know Nadine. Harrelson’s on-screen chemistry with Steinfeld is perfection. His slightly slow southern drawl perfectly counterbalances Steinfeld’s hurried delivery, which, when combined with some truly caustic lines, establishes Mr. Bruner as an unrelenting force. Frankly, Harrelson steals every scene he’s in.
Because Edge is a teen drama, comparisons to John Hughes – the quintessential director of teenage angst from the 80s – are unavoidable; however, this reviewer believes it unnecessary. Like Hughes, Craig utilizes great actors to tell a story intrinsic to the time. Growing up is a universal theme that many have tackled and, when done well, but also with an honest intent, the story touches something within us all. It’s what Hughes accomplished with Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science and it’s what Craig successfully does with The Edge of Seventeen. Though it’s our nature to make comparisons to what we know to judge their value, Edge is its own creature.
On the whole, The Edge of Seventeen is an honest take on the struggle of adolescence. It’s touching, hilarious, and unabashedly honest. Though this reviewer does have some concern over the subtle shift in messaging just before the credits roll, ultimately, writer/director Craig assembled a fantastic cast to execute a nearly perfect story of a snapshot in the life of one girl in high school. The audience that needs to see Edge can’t due to the R-rating, but they should anyway. No matter the age, it’s good to be reminded that we’re not alone, in a crowd or otherwise.
Writer’s Note: If you enjoy Hailee Steinfeld, she’s coming to Charlotte on December 13th as part of Kiss 95.1’s KissMas Concert. For info: http://kiss951.com/kissmas-2016/
Final Score: 3.5 of 5.