Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)

Smart and strong-willed seventeen-year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has always felt like an outsider at home and among her classmates. Her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is popular and can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of their parents. She never seems to see eye to eye with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick). Her father was one of the rare people who understand Nadine, so when he dies unexpectedly, she feels she’s lost her foundation. Now a high school junior in the comedy-drama THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, her longtime best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is virtually the only person who helps Nadine feel less alone.

This key relationship dissolves when Nadine discovers Krista being intimate with Darian. She considers it a betrayal of the highest order and thinks that demanding that Krista have nothing to do with her brother will right the wrong. To her surprise, Krista refuses to stop being involved with him, leading Nadine to cut off communication with the person she’s closest to. Now feeling more isolated than ever, Nadine reaches out to Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who has awkwardly shown interest in her. She also turns to her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), whose lunches she interrupts with her anxious chatter and a dramatic announcement that she’s going to kill herself.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig recognizes that people in general, and teenagers in particular, can get so obsessed with the stuff swirling inside their own heads that they fail to understand what others are dealing with and invite more of the problems on which they fixate. Nadine would likely deny that she’s a narcissist because she isn’t vain, but her self-absorption runs deep. She nurtures her aggrieved feelings and think they make her special, possibly even superior. Nadine clings to a limited and melodramatic worldview that is inward-looking to the point that she blinds herself to the misery she’s generating in her life and those around her. It’s apparent that she’s always been uncomfortable with herself and takes that out on others too.

Nadine is a complicated character, both self-hating and sharply funny, sometimes cruelly so. Steinfeld does a remarkable job of molding the self-involved teen into someone who can be exasperating without snuffing what’s inherently likable about her. She makes her into someone that can be empathized with yet never pitied. When she does something that embarrasses her or who she’s with, her actions evoke laughing and cringing. Nadine has a tendency to be her own worst enemy. Steinfeld doesn’t try to ingratiate herself for the audience’s benefit but inhabits Nadine’s naked neediness and confusion as the natural state of teenage existence.

To that end, Nadine’s interactions with Mr. Bruner go a long way in humanizing her and gaining perspective. To someone overhearing parts of their conversations in the hallway, the teacher’s sarcastic give-and-take with his emotional student might sound grossly insensitive. It’s funny and at least a little alarming when THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN opens with him brushing off her intention to commit suicide, but the more we come to know about how they talk to one another, the more his dry humor in serious conversations is how he’s able to signal that he cares without getting touchy-feely, which neither of them seem oriented toward being. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN doesn’t dismiss what Nadine is going through as a phase, but through Mr. Bruner it is capable of taking the long view to relate to her anxiety and know that in time she can get past it.

Grade: B+

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