Sunday, November 20, 2016

“THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN” IS THE BEST COMING-OF-AGE COMEDY IN A DECADE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Hailee Steinfeld in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (copyright 2016)

Something curious happened while a couple of hugely high-profile movies opened this past weekend. One of 2016's finest opened at a Cineplex near you, even though you may not be aware of it due to the overwhelming attention being showered upon the new franchise FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, Ang Lee’s angst-ridden Oscar contender BILLY FLYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, and Tom Ford’s controversial psychological thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. It's a small film called THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN and you should know that it is one of the year's very best films. It also is probably the finest coming-of-age comedy in a decade. 

Budgeted at a just nine million, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and stars Hailee Steinfeld, the Oscar nominated actress from 2010’s TRUE GRIT. It’s the story of a teenage girl named Nadine who’s experiencing a lot of turmoil concerning where she stands in the world. She is up to her eyeballs in the things most teens panic about - popularity, the opposite sex, and burgeoning adulthood. Nadine's plight is worse however due to the fact that her best friend has just started dating her hunky, older brother. Nadine’s two worlds collide and she decries that the world is out to get her. 

The film is about how she copes and it's both funny and sad, as she makes a lot of mistakes along the way, trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. Her journey will take her from hyper-reactive teen to a more assured young woman, and it's an extraordinary trip for the audience to take with her. I have very little in common with teenagers these days, let alone 17-year-old girls, but I related to every moment of her longing and frustrations and need to connect. She may be young, but her concerns are universal.  

And what makes Craig’s film so wonderful is that it captures such an angst-ridden world of teen panic without every condescending to or laughing at its protagonist. It's hilarious without ever resorting to glibness. It's tremendously moving without ever becoming maudlin. And it drives home truths about growing up without ever becoming heavy-handed. Not only that, but it's got an award-worthy turn by Steinfeld at its center. All that should enable it to join the ranks of the very best teenage-centered comedies in the history of cinema. It's right up there with RISKY BUSINESS, the best of John Hughes, and MEAN GIRLS.  

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
Steinfeld imbues Nadine with a complexity usually reserved for male characters in movie where there are bigger things at stake. She is one of the best actors of her generation, a nuanced talent who is capable of making every line she utters sound fresh and brash and if it just rolled directly out of her head. Some of her comedic instincts take your breath away, like when she emphasizes certain words in a sentence that 99 out of 100 actors wouldn't. But then, Steinfeld understands that Nadine is in her own world. It's almost a prison she's in, created mostly by her own rage and frustrations. And Steinfeld makes sure that we understand all of it. 

Nadine isn't just on the edge of 17, cresting into adulthood, but she's always on edge. You would be too if your road to graduation was filled with brutal potholes. Nadine lost her father a few years back when he died from a heart attack right in front of her. Her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is so absorbed in her own grief that she doesn’t have much sympathy for any of Nadine’s needs. And her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) outshines her at school and at home. And now he's hot for her bestie. 

When he takes a sudden interest in Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), Nadine’s BFF since second grade, it shreds Nadine’s last sense of knowing where she stands in the world. If she can’t at least have her best friend, where does she stand? Her life is nothing but drama, but it makes for sublime comedy too. 

Nadine is propelled to find someone else to fill the hole in her heart and she sets her gaze towards the opposite sex. She should choose Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a classmate who clearly likes her, and they have a lot in common. They're both well-meaning but awkward, and they have a similar self-deprecation that is endearing. But being a teen girl, Nadine gravitates toward the moody dreamboat instead. That would be Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert), whose profile folder is full of overly calculated headshots that Nadine all too easily falls for. She thinks he must be sensitive too because he works part-time at the local pet store, but of course, such Prince Charming's are never whom they appear to be in such films. 

Still, Nadine cannot help herself and in one of her weaker moments she writes a confessional text to him propositioning him and suggesting they get it on in the pet store's stock room. When she accidentally hits "Send", she panics and tells her teacher Mr. Bruner that she's going to kill herself. It's a credit to the movie that we don't know entirely if it's an idle threat or not. Nadine is just that close to the razor's edge. 

Bruner helps her deal with her mistake by talking her down off her metaphorical ledge, and it's one of the film's best conceits that he's not a touchy-feely, super sensitive sort. As played by Woody Harrelson, he's world weary and may be as forlorn as his most obtrusive pupil. Sure, he cares about Nadine, but warily so, as he cares more about the 32 minutes of free time to eat lunch that she continually disrupts. 

Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in a scene from THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.
 Perhaps he and Nadine have such a ‘frick and frack’ relationship because they’re both misanthropes. Still, he recognizes the genuine idealism within all her angst and she recognizes the attentive listener that he is despite his best attempts to play the curmudgeon. And Harrelson has always been equally superb at playing drama as comedy. This is one of his best roles to date, and he's superb in it.

It's great watching the two of them chide each other even though we are never told exactly how they got to this point in their relationship. Screenwriter Craig lets the audience fill in such blanks as she's careful to not spoon feed us every morsel of information. She also gives little backstory to mom Mona, and we never get too good of a grasp what she was like before her husband's untimely death. All we know is what we see in the movie and that is a woman who needs some parenting herself. It's understandable, but it creates a vacuum for Nadine. 

Blake Jenner and Haley Lu Richardson in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.
And even though Craig's film is about a girl flailing and failing, Nadine is actually a whole lot stronger than she, or even we, realize. In one of the film's most dramatic scenes, Nadine's potential make-out session with a curious Nick veers dangerously close to out-and-out sexual assault. He believes her text even though she attempts to treat their first evening together like a spontaneous date. When he makes his move, pulling down her underwear, she refuses his advances. He loses his cool but she tries to get beyond it with him. His wounded pride won't let him so he tosses her out of the car.

Now, this could be a shattering moment, and Nadine is upset by it. But she's also is learning how to cope better and the way she handles it is measured and shrewd on her part. She turns to Bruner, knowing that he will be able to help her the most, and it's one of the film's best moves in showing how Nadine is starting to learn out to better take care of herself. 

And when he takes her into his home to help calm her, she meets his wife and infant son, not knowing he had such a life outside of school. Suddenly, her view of his world expands. She sees a bigger picture of him and it allows her to gaze at her own world, and those in it, with a more worldly view as well. She may not have the perfect relationship with her brother or her mother or her longtime bestie, but they aren’t lost causes and she has the skill set to repair the damage. 

Craig and Steinfeld create one of the better teen heroines ever put onscreen. She's eccentric, mixed up and struggling, but we always laugh with her. And there are little touches that give us clues that Nadine is going to be alright. She may be a gawky, coltish clod at times, but she's self-aware enough to know she has good legs and enjoys making the most of them with her short skirts and dark hose. (It's a wonderful juxtaposition that Nadine still wears comfortable high-tops with them though rather than trendy boots.)  Nadine gets drunk and sick in one scene, but she it doesn't turn into a prat-falling comedic drunk scene. And her constant running monologue about her life never comes off as the words of a screenwriter trying to explain her creation. Instead, it's more of Nadine's better self nagging her worse self to be better. And it's one of the charms of the movie that Craig has Erwin do similar running commentary about his own shortcomings too. Of course, he and Nadine are perfect for each other - they each come with their own Greek chorus!

Steinfeld with Hayden Szeto in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.
And Steinfeld is such an accomplished actor that she aces the dramatic moments as fine as the sillier ones. In one scene she spits out vicious words to hurt Bruner and they cut like a knife. The intensity in Steinfeld's eyes is palpable and shocks the audience as much as Bruner's character is leveled by such a dig. Nadine may hurt, but she can inflict pain too, and Steinfeld doesn’t shy away from playing the uglier parts of the character. It’s a truly exceptional  performance, one that should garner serious awards attention in the coming months.

It will be interesting to see if this film gets such due. So many films that star actors under 18 do not, but this one deserves such accolades and more. Its comedy is always grounded in reality, as is its tragedies. It isn't just a teenage comedy, or a coming-of-age comedy. It is a fantastic film. Nadine's story should resonate with anyone who's 17, or 70 for that matter. Hers is a universal story about the desire to belong and be loved. And it packs a wallop.

1 comment:

  1. I have seen mean girls and really liked it and I hope this movie is also as good as mean girls. Looking forward to watch it

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