"There are two types of people in the world; the people who radiate confidence and naturally excel at life, and the people who hope all those people die in a big explosion."
I do like a good coming of age story, something about capturing youth in all its joy, pain and complexity that has always specifically appealed to me. I say this now as an explanation for my enthusiasm over the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig, as though it may seem odd that I’m about to lavish praise on the writer/director whose previous credit was the awful rom-com ‘Post Grad’ I can’t think of any debut this year that is more deserving of it.
17-year old Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) can’t seem to catch a break in life. Having undergone a recent personal tragedy her school life only seems to be spiralling further out of control as her best friend begins dating Nadine’s older brother, her social anxiety reaches new levels of awkwardness and her only source of expression is her regular conversations with her teacher Mr Bruner (Woody Harrelson).
I would not consider it a coincidence that every time ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ featured a modern day piece of technology, such as a mobile phone or a laptop, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t an inaccuracy and the movie never had been set in the 1970s. I kept convincing myself that the film was following the route of ‘Almost Famous’, ‘Dazed and Confused’ or ‘Freaks and Geeks’ by setting itself decades ago, and that may be because it could easily stand alongside those aforementioned examples as a classic in the coming of age genre.
The key to this genre is relatability and Craig’s sharp script hits that beat excellently, from the difficulty of navigating the social hell that is high school to the vulgarity of teenage speech patterns (score one for bold R rated teen comedies, you have been missed), everything within the film feels genuine and empathetic. The script captures that sense that everything happening at this moment in your life is life changing, how we think we’ll always be defined by how many parties we get invited to and why for some people the art of socialising will forever be a mystery.
Now if all of this doesn’t scream John Hughes at you then chances are that you weren’t paying close enough attention (or you don’t know who John Hughes is in which case I have no time for you). The humour and bittersweet nature of the film blend so excellently amid the strong characterisations and sensationally empathetic scenarios help the film shine. ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ is not above laughing at the plight of its characters but it ensures that we always sympathise with them as well. Nor is it afraid to include some darker undertones and subsequently address them head on.
In some regards the film could be called a drama just as much as it is a comedy. Craig melds the two both through her writing and direction, which is stylistic enough to feel fresh and energetic but also suitably grounded to make the movie feel true to life. The comedic and tragic aspects of the story are weaved together excellently, often it is a comedic situation that leads to a dramatic one. The film opens with Nadine walking into Mr Bruner’s office and announcing that she is preparing to kill herself, what brought her there may be the funniest scene in the film, only rivalled by how hilarious Bruner’s attempt to deal with the issue is. It’s these kind of touches that make the film so wonderfully endearing, and ultimately reveal it to be surprisingly mature as it tackles each serious issue in a truthful and heartfelt manner.
What further elevates the movie are the terrific performances. Having turned in an Oscar nominated performance in the Coen’s ‘True Grit’ Hailee Steinfeld shines as Nadine, a character with a strong identity that isn’t compromised or exploited for cheap laughs. Instead she is given the appropriate amount of attention to forge a likable character who also isn’t afraid to be flawed, if anything it is the way Steinfeld brings those flaws to life that makes Nadine even more endearing.
All of the supporting characters are treated wonderfully as well, with none of them being reduced to one dimensional caricatures in favour of a more truthful and complex view of young life. Not only is their dynamic with Nadine immensely interesting, but even taken on their own they all have unique characteristics that help to create a distinct personality, from Haley Lu Richardson as Nadine’s slightly more well-adjusted friend to her widely beloved brother played by Blake Jenner. But perhaps the most radiant of all is Woody Harrelson, whose understated performance produces some of the films best scenes both when he is conversing with Nadine and when his character is allowed to reveal his own private life.
Genuine, truthful and as heartfelt as it is hilarious, ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ feels like the best John Hughes movie that was never written by John Hughes.