The Edge of Seventeen (2016) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for sexual content, language and some drinking - all involving teens
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Kyra Sedgwick, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto, Woody Harrelson. Alexander Calvert
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig
Review published November 19, 2016
Hailee Steinfeld (Pitch Perfect 2, The Keeping Room) stars as feisty, overly dramatic, and mostly friendless high school junior Nadine, who seems to have trouble fitting in years after the loss of her beloved father, living with a working single mom Mona (Sedgwick, Man on a Ledge) and an older brother, Darian (Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!!) who seems custom-made for the popularity as Mom's savior at home and as an all-star jock at school, which only makes her feel worse about herself in contrast. She does have one friend in Krista (Richardson, The Bronze), but even that relationship is in jeopardy when sparks begin to fly between Krista and Darian, causing jealous Nadine to have no one she can turn to for support during her many times of need, other than imposing herself on her acerbic and highly sarcastic History teacher, Mr. Bruner (Harrelson, Now You See Me 2). Meanwhile, an awkward kid in her class, Erwin (Szeto, "Chop Shop"), tries to go on a date with her, but she only has eyes for the dreamy bad-boy senior named Nick (Calvert, "Arrow"), who doesn't seem to know she exists.
Scripted by first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig, the James L. Brooks-produced The Edge of Seventeen explores the inner turmoil that goes on for many misfit teenagers who are looking but not finding a comfortable identity in their world. Throwing Steinfeld into a rare comic lead performance, the film shifts from the comedy of alienation and acceptance found in works from the 1980s, especially from the films of John Hughes, with a spiritual nod to the Hughes-inspired 2010 teen comedy Easy A, up to the modern sitcom-based family TV shows that explore the difficult dynamic of dysfunctional environments. Craig shows a knack for honest moments and multifaceted characters that break through the clichés and stereotypes often associated with high school comedies, such as the misunderstanding parents or evil-jerk brother at home.
This is an R-rated teenage flick, with spots of adult humor, but one that older teens will certainly identify with and enjoy for not coming across like the kind of snarky Disney Channel/Nickelodeon knockoff that so many films aiming at their demographic succumb to. Some of the jokes are on the darker side, such as assertions from the protagonist that she will commit suicide, as well as the on-screen death of a parent at a tender time in Nadine's life.
While Steinfeld anchors the film as the young woman who feels no one around her can understand her situation, the scene-stealer of the film is Hayden Szeto as the crush-addled Erwin, the smart but socially inept classmate whose nervous reactions to skirting rejection provide the basis for the film's funniest and most endearing moments. The most seasoned actor of the bunch, Woody Harrelson, is a welcome sight from time to time, though the obvious comedic scenes he shares with Steinfeld never quite seem to overcome the artifice of their contentious relationship in the manner that Craig seems to be striving for.
While generally watchable and occasionally amusing throughout the first half, the film gets stronger as it begins to approach its final descent into the refreshingly insightful climax and in the nuanced, respectful (and hopeful) epilogue, drawing out many more unique and touching moments than the somewhat familiar story had been building up to those points. Nadine learns a valuable lesson that the loves of others aren't very different from hers, with others ability to hide their problems and insecurities in ways that awaken her to the knowledge that appearances are often different than one initially perceives while viewed with the myopia of self-centered immaturity. She feels misunderstood, when in reality, she has been misunderstanding others all along.
While it may not ultimately resonate for today's teenage generation the way that Hughes' Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club did in the 1980s, it does emerge as an example that's a cut above the likes of homogenized feel-good quirk or lewd and crude, mean-spirited raunch that permeates many of today's comedies that seek to entertain the demographic.
©2016 Vince Leo