The Edge of Seventeen (2016) by Kelly Fremon Craig
Review by Andrew Swafford
Those of us with younger siblings or exceptionally vivid memories of our own childhood are bound to be familiar with the way adolescents talk, each one convinced they are the funniest and smartest person in the room. All the world’s a soundstage, around which an imagined laugh track resounds at the end of each assuredly hysterical quip. Disney Channel sitcoms program this mentality, as do the John Hughes-era coming-of-age films--and Diablo Cody’s cheeky script for Juno may have even been satirizing said witty/insufferable banter of America’s teen/tween culture. On screen, it’s funny; in real life, it’s equal parts awkward and annoying. The Edge of Seventeen plays it both ways, smartly understanding the fact that the too quirky, too clever dialogue its genre has become known for contains a stilted sadness; it is symptomatic of the largest teenage ailment: egocentrism.
Hailee Steinfeld, who showed preternatural talent in True Grit (Lydia wrote an essay about this), here plays a typically uncool high-schooler named Nadine. She lives in the suburbs, watches cartoons, sleeps through class, is awkward at parties, has a crush on an archetypal bad-boy who doesn’t know she exists, and dominates every conversation with aforementioned jokiness. Her dad cranks Billy Joel on the car radio. She has an older brother who is much more popular and attractive than her, relegating Nadine to the status of “Darian’s sister.” She is typical even in the ways that she perceives herself as exceptional, boasting about her preference for old movies/music and her disdain for her own generation. I do not mean to suggest that Nadine’s character is lazily written, but rather that it is a perfect encapsulation of a specific adolescent experience that all audiences will likely recognize, even if it wasn’t theirs.
But rather than being satisfied with mere identification and relatability, The Edge of Seventeen pulls off a deft deconstruction of this near-universal character, laying bare all of her flaws and vices while maintaining her humanity. In Nadine’s oft-rolled eyes, she is a misunderstood outcast who has been dealt a bad hand by the universe, despite her upper-class privilege and exceptional beauty. But in reality, all of her laments but one (the passing of her father) are just ways of making every situation all about her--her lack of friends and her angst and her sexual frustration and her alienation and her bad haircut that somehow equates to divine cosmic injustice. I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s line from This is Water: “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe.” To break this fiction, Nadine’s journey is one past her own nose--to acknowledge the fact that everyone else is just as lonely and tired and disillusioned as she is, as well as the fact that the well-liked lucky ones of her world may in fact just be more good-hearted and pleasant than she is.
Kelly Fremon Craig’s film is not one that attempts to put Nadine in her place--rather, it is one that provides an exceptional amount of space and patience for her to make her own decisions and react authentically to their consequences. The Edge of Seventeen is a relatively plotless affair, and conflicts/relationships emphasized in the trailer end up taking up very little screen time. And that’s because the movie isn’t about any particular conflict; it’s about Nadine being alone with her anxieties and uncertainties. In many ways, this is the American equivalent of Lone Scherfig’s underrated film An Education (a film I will eventually write a Retro Review for), which also forgoes judgement or tight plot structure and opts instead to follow its leading lady wherever she chooses to go, shooting her story with sumptuous seriousness usually reserved only for “sophisticated” awards contenders. Only here, British stuffiness is traded for American entitlement. Thank heaven for Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the part zealously and emphatically. None of her character’s epiphanies of romance and maturity feel forced or written--they feel lived and earned, as a great coming-of-age film should be.
As a piece of teenage Americana and a piece of good cinema, The Edge of Seventeen gets basically everything right. The script captures the beat-by-beat way that teenagers talk, but the naturalistic editing captures the awkward way it actually plays out in real life. The performances never feel knowing or tongue-in-cheek, achieving a level of melodrama that feels both wise and nostalgic at the same time. I adored this film--it’s a brilliant character study that consistently made me laugh, sorrow, and swoon, all the while encouraging thought and reflection on what exactly makes teenage years so difficult. As it turns out, self-loathing isn’t always unfounded.