Running Time: 99 mins
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto
Coming of age comedy drama about a precocious teenager whose high school life gets worse when her best friend starts dating her older, more popular brother.
Coming of age drama/comedy (or dramedy if we like a good portmanteau) is one of the more interesting and contradictory sub-genres that we find in film. They generally don’t tend to do gangbusters at the box-office but the good ones, more often than not, tend to live for a very long time in our memories and affections. Often they get passed down from generation to generation and it’s an indicator of the truisms we frequently find in these films: that our adolescent and early adolescent years may be tough but with perseverance and true friendship/love, we can find our way and our true selves in the process. American Graffiti, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, The Squid and The Whale and Superbad are just some movies that have lived well beyond their respective release dates.
The Edge of Seventeen fits very much into this coming of age sub-genre and in fact the film’s poster has a blurb quoting how the movie invokes the spirit of the great John Hughes. That is sort of accurate but also misleading. The poster also has quotes comparing it to Clueless and Mean Girls which I would argue fit more into the high school comedy/satire genre, and that is probably as a result of the fact that coming of age movies typically feature a male protagonist whereas The Edge of Seventeen features a terrific Hailee Steinfeld in the lead role. And whilst it’s refreshing, and not nearly commonplace enough, to have a strong female lead, the film suffers from strange tonal shifts and the fact that it doesn’t do enough from what came before it in the genre to really distinguish itself.
The film opens in very John Hughes style manner with 17 year old Nadine (Steinfeld) telling her history teacher (An underused but always excellent Woody Harrelson) in very dramatic fashion that she’s going to kill herself. We then segue into a flashback of an 8 year old Nadine with her younger brother in the back of the car and her parents trying to ready them for school. Her brother (the older version played assuredly by Blake Jenner) is happy and ready for school whereas 8 year old Nadine is anxious and scared with what is about to face her. It’s well done and ends with a bit of slapstick comedy that Hughes was known to insert into his movies.
But as the film progresses, it starts to shift to the more modern, Diablo Cody (think more Juno than Jennifer’s Body) type of teen movie. And that in itself is fine and the film does have plenty of excellent one-liners and quite a few laugh out loud exchanges but the film turns on a plot point that is kind of silly and it essentially descends into heavy handed drama for the illusion of story.
For what it’s worth, coming of age movies don’t really rely on plot very much, they’re typically dialogue heavy and rely on not only the emotional rapport between the characters but the emotional responses we have in watching them. The Edge of Seventeen ticks those boxes in a way but the film relies too heavily on the plot point of Nadine’s best friend Krista sleeping with Nadine’s older brother and its here that it descends into melodrama which really takes up way too much space in the film. Nadine is understandably upset that the one person she can relate to is now dating her older brother, who is antithetical to her in every way possible but it feels forced and more than a little obvious.
One of the biggest problems with the film is that there’s a feeling of having been here before. The popular sibling and the less popular sibling being at odds with each other, the good looking love interest who you just know is a sleaze-ball to the nerdy love interest who you just know is going to win out in the end. And you could maybe forgive that if the film tried to do something different with the genre but it doesn’t. There’s a neatness to The Edge of Seventeen that feels a little insincere and that could quite possibly be the influence of James L Brooks, a producer on the film. Brooks has great pedigree (that shushing at the end of every Simpsons episode is his production company, Gracie Films) in the industry and that syrupy feeling that worked well in movies like Say Anything and Jerry Maguire (both of which he produced) doesn’t quite fit here.
What is also lacking, and it’s a staple of great coming of age movies, is a killer soundtrack. The Edge of Seventeen does have some high profile artists but they aren’t particularly well utilized, certainly not in the way Cameron Crowe utilized soundtrack in Say Anything or Jerry Maguire. Similarly with the visuals, there’s not anything drastically innovative going on.
It should be said that it’s not all negative and there is a lot to like about The Edge of Seventeen. The film is strongest in the moments when it opens that window into the inner world of a teenager, moments that really don’t have much to do with the plot but illuminate the inherent loneliness of being a teenager. When Nadine articulates how she’s worried she’ll never outgrow her awkward phase and how she hates how she sounds or how she looks when she chews gum, it’s all very relatable and Steinfeld absolutely nails it in her performance. In fact, Steinfeld is the reason to go see this movie. She captures heart-ache and humour, sometimes in the same scene, in such a way that it’s hard to believe she’s still only 19.
An interesting but all too predictable film lifted by a brilliant performance by Hailee Steinfeld and some nice supporting turns make this a film worth catching at the cinema but one that likely won’t linger long in the memory other than for Steinfeld’s star-making turn.