Thursday, December 8, 2016

'The Edge of Seventeen' review

During the 1980s, teen movies were at their peak. With iconic directors like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe leading the charge, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Say Anything..., and more all became classics. Those films have endured for years, and have all been celebrated by generations of young people. But as the leaders of the teen movie genre like Crowe and Hughes moved on to bigger and better projects, the genre started to fade. The 90s and 2000s were less impressive for the genre, with only a few films like Dazed and Confused and Mean Girls truly standing out from the rest. In recent years, there's been something of a teen movie resurgence, with movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, and Easy A surprising and delighting audiences in equal measure. They're still few and far between, but there have certainly been some classics.

Expectations were pretty low for Kelly Fremon Craig's The Edge of Seventeen, a high school-set comedy that focuses on the misadventures of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). Even though the film was from Simpsons producer James L. Brooks and nabbed the closing night spot at TIFF, nobody really paid this film a whole lot of attention. But as soon as people actually saw it, Fremon Craig's directorial debut broke out in a big way. Sure, the box office hasn't been spectacular thus far, but with some of the best reviews of the year, this is going to be a teen favorite for a very long time. And with good reason. Even if you think you know what to expect from a movie like this, The Edge of Seventeen still has boundless ways to surprise you and subvert your expectations. While Nadine's various mishaps and blunders are painfully awkward and often quite hilarious, this is truly a bittersweet, brutally realistic film about how tough high school can really be. No character in The Edge of Seventeen is exactly who you think they are, and the way that the film continually finds ways to surprise the audience makes it a true treat. It's poignant, funny, and oddly tragic, and I have a feeling that many people will find a piece of themselves in this refreshingly honest teen flick.

Ever since she was a young girl, Nadine has viewed herself as an outsider. She's living in the shadow of Darian (Blake Jenner), her handsome, popular brother, and when she's a young girl, she has very few people to connect with. The only people who truly understand her are Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend, and her loving, whip-smart father (Eric Keenleyside). Unfortunately, her father passes away, leaving Nadine to venture through her high school years with only her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), who doesn't seem to understand her at all. Thankfully, she still has Krista, her best friend and closest confidant. But when Krista and Darian strike up a relationship, the world begins to crumble around Nadine. As she searches for meaning in her messed up universe, Nadine finds solace in the company of a disgruntled English teacher (Woody Harrelson), while also finding herself on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I have a natural distaste for teen movies that feel fake or phony, films that play into high school cliches without ever truly examining what these formative years are like. The best teen movies are introspective and maybe even a little existential, concerned more with the never-ending stress and awkwardness of the experience rather than the stereotypes of cliques and popularity. Because quite frankly, both of those things are a myth, and they're not subjects that require that much thought or consideration. The best high school movies treat their characters like real people, not like tropes that need to be deconstructed. That's why I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of The Breakfast Club- sure, it has a few compelling moments, but its setup is so miserably contrived that Hughes' reflections often feel shallow. On the flip side, movies like Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower handle their characters like lost souls, searching for connection and meaning while on the cusp of adulthood. The people in those films are not defined by their social group or relation to the high school hierarchy- they feel like real people.

The Edge of Seventeen certainly joins that esteemed group, thanks to the excellent script by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig. Each and every character is deceptively and surprisingly deep, not defined by their surface-level characteristics or even your first impression of them. Because to be quite honest, many of these characters are flat-out unlikable at first glance. Nadine is a character that you can relate to, but she isn't exactly "likable" in the true sense of the word. She seems to have a complaint about everything, and she fits into the typical snarky archetype that many teen movies have used over time. But as the story progresses, Nadine becomes an almost tragically awkward figure, a girl falling apart internally as the world zips by her. The third act is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the movie, because it reveals the true pain at the heart of both Nadine and Darian, who is also much more kind and thoughtful than he initially seems.

Hailee Steinfeld is one of the major reasons that The Edge of Seventeen takes off like it does, and it's abundantly clear that she's turning into a major Hollywood star. Steinfeld's turn as Nadine alternates between cringe-inducing hilarity, profound innocence, and true heartbreak with almost breathtaking ease, crafting a layered, complex character along the way. Steinfeld has so many spectacular moments in the film, and the fact that she feels like a real, authentic person that I could possibly know in my own life only makes the performance that much more impressive. Everybody Wants Some's Blake Jenner also dazzles as Darian, Nadine's popular, charming, and ridiculously successful brother. Jenner is great at playing it cool, but here, he's allowed to dig a little deeper, finding the true soul of a character who could be played off as a one-note cliche. In a lesser film, Darian would be a prick from start to finish, but Fremon Craig never even comes close to that level of simplicity. Believe it or not, the popular people and the jocks have problems of their own. Jenner is thoroughly convincing in the role, and he really should be considered one of the breakout stars of 2016.

Haley Lu Richardson is also poised to be a breakout star in the next year, with her role in this and M. Night Shyamalan's Split. She's excellent as Krista, the girl torn between her friend and the guy she loves. Hayden Szeto rounds out the main teen crew as Erwin, the charming filmmaker who's literally head-over-heels in love with Nadine. Szeto is a thoroughly likable presence on screen, and he deserves to be a star. Woody Harrelson is his usual self as the clever and sarcastic Mr. Bruner, but the film does something with the typical teacher role that I thought was very fascinating. The kindly teacher (almost always an English teacher) who bonds with a student is a tried-and-true concept, but in The Edge of Seventeen, Fremon Craig changes the script and creates a world where the teachers are just as unhappy and unfulfilled as the students. Harrelson is the perfect actor for this curmudgeonly role, and the fact that he emerges as major part of the movie's emotional core is even more impressive.

But ultimately, even with an array of stellar performances, the real breakout star here is Kelly Fremon Craig. This is her directorial debut, and if she doesn't get more projects from this moment on, there's something seriously wrong with Hollywood. Fremon Craig doesn't deliver a film with flashy style or an innovative story, but she proves herself to be an incredibly thoughtful filmmaker with an exceptional eye for character. There's such immense depth to everybody who inhabits the world of The Edge of Seventeen, and the impeccable pacing only enhances the journey that these characters take. Fremon Craig has an uncommonly strong eye for how people relate to each other, and the conflict and connections that can come from terrible situations. She nails high school, which brings about the danger that she could be pigeonholed as a "teen" filmmaker. I hope that doesn't happen, because it's clear that she's a strong directorial voice that will be introducing us to some great stories and wonderful characters for years to come.

Is The Edge of Seventeen a full-blown teen classic? No, not quite. It took just a tad too long for me to really tune into its wavelength, for me to connect with the characters and the movie's emotional arc. But as the story begins to tie together in a way that works extremely well, Fremon Craig delivers a final product that I truly enjoyed. Led by a remarkable performance by Hailee Steinfeld and a terrific supporting crew, The Edge of Seventeen is an honest, authentic, and funny portrait of high school life that will be adored for years to come. It's ingenious, funny, and endlessly intelligent, but in the end, the film's emotional center is what holds it all together. It's an uncommonly wise teen movie, and even though it's falling short at the box office, I have no doubt that The Edge of Seventeen is going to find an audience someday.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.8/10)

Images courtesy of STX Entertainment 

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