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Non-Review Review: The Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen is a fantastic coming of age film from writer and director Kelly Fremon Craig.

The script sparkles, the casting is spot-on, the humour is well-observed. Like so many great coming of age comedies, The Edge of Seventeen understands that familiar teenage angst where the entire world seems to have been constructed as a sadistic (and highly targetted) Rube Goldberg machine for the sole purpose of torturing one single individual. The Edge of Seventeen balances this all very deftly, creating a set of circumstances that understandably feel like the end of the world to the lead character, but which seem comical to a more matured detached audience.

Teenage wildlife.

Teenage wildlife.

However, the true strength of any coming of age film lies in the casting. Easy A was a fantastic film, but it was cleverly elevated by the shrewd casting of Emma Stone as its wry protagonist. The Edge of Seventeen places Hailee Steinfeld at the centre of its teenage universe. Steinfeld delivers a pitch-perfect performance that meticulously walks the line between sardonic and vulnerable. The Edge of Seventeen has the luxury of a well-crafted and well-observed script, but it lives or dies by its central performance.

Steinfeld is phenomenal.

Animated discussion.

Animated discussion.

The Edge of Seventeen is a very shrewd and very clever little comedy about an anti-social teenage outcast. Nadene is undoubtedly a very smart young woman, a wry observer of the people around her with a razer-sharp wit. However, Nadene is also a teenage girl. The Edge of Seventeen does an excellent job, in both its performances and its construction, in demonstrating that Nadene’s biting commentary is ultimately just a defense mechanism that acts to protect a confused and disorientated individual.

Sarcasm and irony are powerful tools for the teenage comedy. After all, anybody who has interacted with teenagers for an extended period of time will recognise their utility as weapons both offensive and defensive. The Edge of Seventeen has a central character who has honed those particular blades to perfection, and the movie in some way reflects that. The movie is populated by characters who can at least keep pace with Nadene’s outbursts, even if they can’t quite match her.

Vote for Pedro!

Vote for Pedro!

“You’re my favourite student,” her teacher notes in a brief moment of sincerity. He pauses, considering his comment. “That felt like something I should say,” he adds, awkwardly. The Edge of Seventeen is populated by characters who skilfully hide their intentions behind passive-aggressive masks. It is no surprise that The Edge of Seventeen comes with an Executive Producer credit for James L. Brooks, who elevated ironic earnestness (and earnest irony) to an artform with both The Simpsons and As Good As It Gets.

Those seem like good markers for The Edge of Seventeen. At the review screening, the audience’s first cheer came up for the “Gracie Films” logo, which is still considered a mark of quality for this generation. Making her directorial debut, Kelly Fremon Craig understands that it is not enough for a coming of age film to run on irony. Indeed, the biggest challenge with The Edge of Seventeen is the temptation to just wallow in that detached snarky mode. However, at every point, the film pulls back just enough that The Edge of Seventeen never seems too cynical.

Curb her enthusiasm.

Curb her enthusiasm.

Part of the credit for that lies with Craig’s script. The Edge of Seventeen balances the demands of the coming of age story quite deftly, understanding at once the expectations of the genre and its limitations. The script understands precisely how much “give” there is to the genre conventions. More than that, the script pitches itself at just the right level. The challenges facing Nadene are constructed in such a way that they never seem bleak or oppressive, even if the audience always understands why they might seem like the end of the world to its central character.

Indeed, so many of the challenges facing Nadene could be solved with a simple conversation or with the smallest gesture of sincerity. The beauty of The Edge of Seventeen lies in the way that the film digs into Nadene’s psychology. Even as the audience understands that things are not as dark as Nadene thinks them to be, they also understand why these events can seem overwhelming to a seventeen-year-old girl who is working through a variety of personal issues. It is a very fine line, and The Edge of Seventeen walks it effortlessly.

"Yeah, I'd kinda envisaged more of a Dangerous Minds thing myself."

“Yeah, I’d kinda envisaged more of a Dangerous Minds thing myself.”

However, Hailee Steinfeld also deserves a great deal of credit for the film’s success. Nadene is an interesting character on paper, but one that largely conforms to the expectations of the genre. There is a broad archetypal quality to the antisocial teenager character embodied by Nadene. Steinfeld finds a rich humanity at the core of teh character. As the film’s lead performer, she sets the tone for the film’s delicate balance between ironic and earnest. Nadene is a fascinating charater, primarily because of the complexity with which Steinfeld imbues her.

It helps that Steinfeld is supported by a disarming ensemble, although the film very clearly belongs to her. However, the supporting cast in The Edge of Seventeen exudes the sort of casual charm that powers comedies like this. Woody Harrelson’s sarcastic history teacher is perhaps first among equals, although Blake Jenner builds upon the good will established by Everybody Wants Some!! to play another surprisingly emotional complex late teenage hunk. Kyra Sedgwick and Haley Lu Richardson also do good work.

Teenage kicks.

Teenage kicks.

The Edge of Seventeen is an endearing coming of age film with a great sense of humour and a superb central performance. It is a pleasure, from beginning to end.

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2 Responses

  1. I just this and really loved it. Honestly I think it is superior to ‘The Easy A’. No one is a bigger fan of Emma Stone than I am but I think her charisma and performance hid a lot of flaws in the older film. You are right about Hailee Steinfeld, she’s great.

    One thing that struck me was the film had quite a strong retro vibe, with a main character who barely bothers with social media, or even uses her phone all that much – with a few tweaks this film could have made ten years, and with a few slightly bigger changes it could have fit very well in the later years of the Clinton administration. That was kind of a plus for me (I was Nadene’s age in 1999 and am not particularly techy even today) but I do wonder how it plays with actual modern teens.

    • I may need to watch it again before I come down on one side or the other of the Easy A debate. I think you’re right though, Emma Stone singlehandedly carries that film.

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