Mark Reviews Movies

The Edge of Seventeen


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kelly Fremon Craig

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick, Woody Harrelson, Hayden Szeto, Alexander Calvert, Eric Keenleyside

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, language and some drinking - all involving teens)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 11/18/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 17, 2016

The feeling that nobody, save for a few select people, truly understands you is normal. The way that feeling can define a person's entire life is perhaps most common during the teenage years, and it is a waste of youth. The protagonist of The Edge of Seventeen, a junior in high school, has every opportunity—and then some—to enjoy this time of her life, when expectations aren't quite at their height and the likelihood of being forgiven for mistakes is higher still (We say "youthful indiscretions" with a little smirk for a reason).

One detail of Nadine's (Hailee Steinfeld) current situation sticks out significantly, and it's the fact that she doesn't have a driver's license. She jokes that she doesn't need one, because, after all, there's no reason to drive herself when she can have other people do that for her. The guy on the receiving end of that joke doesn't laugh, and why should he? He's driving Nadine when she says it, and the implication for him, of course, is that he's a sucker for chauffeuring her around town. He's not going to complain, because he has a mad crush on Nadine. He doesn't know how or even what she feels about him, but it's pretty obvious that she's not sure herself.

Nadine's lack of a license is a shirking of both potential freedom and eventual responsibility. She doesn't think she has anywhere to go, really, so her inability to legally drive is a good excuse for avoiding any opportunity that might arise to go someplace. Why, then, should she even bother to find out if she could go to a party, meet some new friends outside of school, or just escape home for an evening? She couldn't go even if she wanted to.

Her life has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Nadine knows she's miserable and thinks she's destined to feel that way. There are good reasons for the way she's feeling, but how many has she created in her own mind, just to be able to keep telling others and herself that this is the way it is for her?

Take the seemingly innocent, completely mundane, and almost inevitable event that sends Nadine's life spiraling to a new low. After a night of heavy drinking, she finds Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), Nadine's best friend since the two girls were in grade school and the only friend she has ever known, in bed with Darian (Blake Jenner), Nadine's older brother. This shouldn't be a big deal. Nadine's mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) argues that she should be happy, because her best friend and her brother are happy. Nadine is having none of that.

There's a lot of baggage here, and writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (making her directorial debut) is smart to keep the explanations simple. Nadine's father (Eric Keenleyside) died suddenly over three years ago. He was the glue holding Nadine to her family, since she and Mona are in a near-constant state of argument, as well as the fact that she's convinced her mother prefers the seemingly perfect Darian over her. There's the suggestion that Nadine may have been diagnosed with clinical depression or, at least, that she could have been, if she had continued with therapy after her father's death.

Craig isn't making excuses for her protagonist's behavior and attitudes. The information about Nadine's troubled family relations and difficult past is established almost immediately here. There's no attempt at manipulation on the part of Craig's screenplay, because we know right away what makes this character tick and why.

It helps that, as written by Craig and played by Steinfeld, Nadine is an intelligent and engaging character, with a stinging sense of humor and no hesitation in telling it as she sees it. The sympathetic side to the character comes through, not on account of circumstances in and of themselves, but in how we can tell the way her experiences have shaped her.

She's hesitant, for example, to tell Erwin (Hayden Szeto), the classmate with a crush on her, what she feels, if anything, about him. We know, though, that she's reluctant on account of simple fear, of having someone else confirm what she suspects about herself—that she isn't good enough for someone to love her. Instead, she's drawn to Nick (Alexander Calvert), the school's bad boy whom she already knows won't give her the time of day. There's a strange sense of safety in that.

It might be that need for consistency that repeatedly draws her to confide in her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who can dish out insults as well as he can take them. At least he listens to her problems, unlike Mona, who asks her daughter about her life but doesn't let the girl get a word in before complaining about her own. The student-teacher relationship eventually lets Nadine see that appearances can be deceiving in a positive way and that attitudes can be put on.

Craig finds a good balance here between examining the real pain that Nadine is experiencing and finding the humor within the way she responds to it. Craig doesn't undermine Nadine's problems, and she doesn't belittle the character as some kind of selfish girl who can't understand people because she won't look beyond herself (The quality is part of Nadine, to be sure, but it's not her fault). It's a tricky tone that Craig strikes with The Edge of Seventeen: She lets us laugh at Nadine's foibles, without laughing at Nadine herself. There's no judgment here, just acknowledging that being a teenager is tough—and doing so with a grin.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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