Friday, November 18, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen: Endearing teen-scene traumas

The Edge of Seventeen (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, vulgarity and some bad teen behavior

By Derrick Bang

Aside from the cool kids — the ones never short of friends and flunkies, and who never seem to embarrass themselves — everybody else, up through high school, inevitably goes through a period of misfit insecurity.

After committing the worst possible blunder, in an era when a single click can expose an
ill-advised comment to the entire world, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) bares her soul to history
teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who'd clearly prefer to enjoy his lunch break in peace.
(In truth, it probably happens to the cool kids, as well. But they never let on.)

In Nadine’s case, it started shortly after birth. By the time she hit second grade, at age 7, she already knew that life — God — had dealt her a rotten hand, and that she’d be a loser her entire life. Taunted by classmates. Plagued by a hopeless clothes sense. Forever in the shadow of an all-too-perfect older brother, the apple of their mother’s eye.


Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen comes with one of the best tag lines I’ve seen: “You’re only young once ... is it over yet?” It’s an apt description: Craig has an unerring ear for the catastrophes of a disenfranchised high school girl in the modern world, whose outsider status is a quabillion times worse, in this age of social media status.

This film is endearing, embarrassing, poignant and cringe-hilarious: hard to watch for all the ways in which it looks, sounds and — worst of all — feels familiar. We’ve been there. Experienced the end of the world. And, yet, endured. (That which doesn’t kill us...)

The last bit is what worries Nadine, who genuinely fears that her life Never. Will. Change.

Craig’s savvy script fuels the narrative, but the film gets its heart from star Hailee Steinfeld’s adorable, heartbreaking lead performance. Now grown into a high school junior, Nadine is an angst-laden, long-suffering tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, who manages to be both vulnerable and insufferably self-absorbed. That requires deft acting chops, and Steinfeld delivers.

On the home front, the sibling situation has become worse. Older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a senior, has matured into a muscled hunk adored by all ... including their mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), who continues to display a streak of favoritism. But it’s clearly a chicken/egg dynamic: Is Nadine massively insecure because of her mother’s bias, or has Mona gravitated toward Darian because his sister is such a handful?

Nadine has survived this long solely because of longtime BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who became an inseparable companion back in second grade (the two girls bonding over a caterpillar). They do everything together, Krista keenly aware of — and willing to sympathize with — Nadine’s anxiety and lack of confidence.

On the school front, Nadine has developed a habit of interrupting her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), during his sacred lunch half-hour. He tolerates this with snarky resignation; although this dynamic initially seems wary — Bruner looking genuinely aggrieved, at each of Nadine’s motor-mouthed intrusions — we gradually realize that he sympathizes, even if he rarely understands.

Harrelson is a hoot: Craig gives him wonderfully barbed one-liners, which Bruner utters with deadpan dryness. Nadine often can’t be sure if he’s making fun of her, and uncertainty leads to some choice — if rather nasty — put-downs of her own. We quickly come to anticipate each of these lunchtime meetings, even if they cause Mr. Bruner’s eyes to roll heavenward.

Then, as if the daily grind weren’t awful enough, a true crisis: Krista and Darian become An Item.

Utter betrayal by both, in Nadine’s eyes. Unacceptable. Unforgiveable.

Unrecoverable. All is lost.

Misery prompts a rash act, one likely common with such ready access to impulsive social media outbursts. At which point, Nadine figures her life is over. Which, actually, is the moment at which this film begins, after which we catch up with a lengthy flashback.

Craig is a relative newcomer, known thus far only for having scripted 2009’s Post Grad, a post-Gilmore Girls starring vehicle for Alexis Bledel: a mildly amusing romantic comedy that went nowhere quickly. Perhaps taking this response to heart, Craig went off the radar for seven years, apparently honing her filmmaking chops.

The result: a fresh, coming-of-age teen comedy that’ll definitely stand the test of time. The characters are well sculpted and cast, their interactions both amusing and (at times) uncannily authentic.

Richardson, a busy TV actress, makes Krista perky, cheerful and resolutely loyal; she inevitably softens Nadine’s rougher edges. And if we occasionally wonder what Krista gets out of the friendship, Richardson projects an aura of forgiving patience: as if she somehow knows that it’ll all even out in the end, once Nadine (somehow!) becomes a better version of herself.

Hayden Szeto is a stitch as Erwin, an awkward classmate with a ferocious crush on Nadine. It’s a scene-stealing performance, Szeto’s nervous twitches, double-takes and mumble-mouthed non-sequiturs side-splittingly funny ... and, once again, all too authentic. Erwin is the personification of the geeky guy who can’t articulate his feelings about the cute girl in the adjacent desk; Szeto has turned this role into an archetype, against which all past and future geeks must be measured.

Nadine, while aware of Erwin’s interest, has eyes only for the Impossible Dream: bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), positively not the sort to bring home to Mother. Calvert makes the guy appropriately aloof and condescending. And sneaky.

We worry.

Sedgwick’s Mona is a raging ball of fluttering anxiety, also prone to rash behavior. (Nadine clearly comes by her traits honestly.) It couldn’t be further from Sedgwick’s lengthy run as the calm, poised and professional Brenda Leigh Johnson, on TV’s The Closer; we can’t help wondering how Mona even drags out of bed each morning. But this isn’t a one-note character; Mona has quite reasonable issues — Nadine being one of them — and Sedgwick successfully straddles the line between character and caricature.

Jenner is spot-on as the impatient older brother who has had — quite — enough — from his self-centered sister. At first blush, Darian seems superficial and narcissistic, but Krista brings out a softer, more sympathetic side; the subtlety of Jenner’s performance comes from the way in which he gradually allows this aspect of Darian to emerge.

As the story progresses, we realize that it must be terribly difficult — and unfair — for Darian to get stuck being the go-to voice of reason, between a mother and sister who are (apparently) similarly unhinged.

One noticeable problem, though: At 24, Jenner has become too old to successfully play a teenager. He got away with it during his two seasons on TV’s Glee, but here he looks too mature alongside Steinfeld and Richardson.

Craig makes excellent use of her film’s pop-song soundtrack, with well-placed tracks by everybody from Cilia Black and the Thompson Twins, to Bronski Beat and A Flock of Seagulls.

Be advised: This film earns its R rating for profanity and vulgarity. Nadine isn’t as relentlessly potty-mouthed as the guys in most of today’s male-centric moron comedies, but her spontaneous outbursts do get rather coarse. Which is also funny, because she swears like somebody who uses such language out of the belief that it’s cool, or daring, as opposed to sounding like she actually means it.

It’s yet another of the many ways in which Craig deftly nails the teen dynamic. This is a marvelous little film, with Steinfeld’s work every bit as memorable as Emma Stone’s breakthrough performance in 2010’s Easy A.

But be prepared to wince — in recognition — as often as you laugh.

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