Some genres come packed with baggage, with expectations, cliches, and “rules” they’ve developed over time.
This happens when you’ve told variations on the same themes over and over for decades.Although it indulges in them occasionally, this week’s film cares not for your genre trappings. The Edge of Seventeen does not give a damn what you think a teen movie should be like, and it lets you know from the very first scene, in which a troubled teen confesses a threat of suicide to a would-be mentor, only to told in no uncertain terms to get lost. The message is clear: This is a meaner teen comedy than you’re used to. It’s also a better film than the norm.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as introverted loner teen Nadine, a girl whose already-frustrating existence becomes even more bothersome when her BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) begins dating her handsome and popular brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Nadine massively overreacts to this, but it’s a little understandable since her home life consists of managing a manic-depressive mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and at school, her one potential adult mentor (Woody Harrelson) is a burnt-out history teacher who is not even remotely interested in playing the teen-movie wise mentor role. Meanwhile, she harbors secret feelings for a bland and generic Hot Guy while an extremely awkward nerd named Erwin (Hayden Setzo) tries to persue her.
There’s a harshness, almost meanness to Edge of Seventeen which makes it more than a little abrasive to watch. There’s definitely humor here, but much of it is derived from the surprise subversion of moments which would typically be moving or heartfelt in normal movies. The laughs are of a choking I-can’t-believe-that-went-there sort, mostly stemming from writer/director Kelly Freemon Craig’s commitment to going the extra mile to prove her point, which is “life sucks for this girl.” For example, in a flashback sequence, we see young Nadine pushed to the ground by a bully. We expect the bully to say something mean to show the audience that well, she’s a bully. What we don’t expect is for that mean thing which comes out of that little girl’s mouth to be “You suck and you’re going to get AIDS.”
But it’s this same severity that makes the film run. The movie needs to be this kind of indie-film bleak, because otherwise it’s the story of a highly unpleasant and unlikeable person teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown. Well, that’s true anyway, but the film manages to make us empathize with Nadine even when we don’t necessarily like her. We witness all of her obnoxious abrasiveness, but also fully relate to her insecurities. She’s being selfish and irrational throughout, but it’s also easy to see where she’s coming from. Craig’s screenplay and Steinfeld’s performance strike this difficult balance, and it’s a good thing they pull it off since the entire film depends on it.
But more than that, the movie is committed to feeling real, even when “real” isn’t pretty.
Camerawork and lighting is minimalist, as is makeup. Compare this to more traditional teen fare like say, The DUFF, and you’ll see a layer of sheen and brightness over everything which Edge of Seventeen noticeably lacks.More than that, entire scenes will go by without any score, which just serves to heighten the realism of the family conflicts inside them. They feel like an afternoon family argument, without music in the background telling you how to feel. Some of these scenes feel like they take place in an airless vacuum, recreating the childhood feeling of having your friend’s parents get into a fight while you were over to play.
But there’s beauty in this brutality, and the movie knows exactly when to pull its punches. Occasionally the light comes in and the film resets itself into “teen movie” mode. This balance is ultimately entertaining and about as satisfying as a movie about important emotional issues can be. In keeping with the film’s commitment to details, most of the supporting characters are given small scenes outside of Nadine’s periphery, allowing us to see outside her limited purview. (Which is important, as the whole purpose of Nadine’s arc is her learning to do just that.) Edge of Seventeen is carried by a smart, if overly dark, script and a great performance by Steinfeld. But more than that, it’s held together by a sense of emotional realism and a handful of originality, making it worth seeing and appreciating – even if there is some required cringing along the way.Liked This? Share It!