Tuesday 17 January 2017

The Edge Of Seventeen (2016) - Movie Review

What is it about coming of age stories that we like so much? They represent the harshness of reality that most teens go out to the movies to get the hell away from, and they remind most adults of a time in their life that is (thankfully) well and truly behind them. Not to say that such observations about the trials and tribulations of childhood and adolescence can’t be joyous, usually by way of showing triumph against the relatively massive odds; it’s just that the general mode of this type of story intrinsically involves some form of familiar cringe that, on paper, feels like a natural wall between the art and the audience.

So, with that in mind, why do we watch them? Well, maybe it’s because they offers us a chance of reflection on our own coming of age stories, giving some clarity to what many people would consider to be one of the worst periods of their lives. It also directly plays into our innate want for validation, and a story that people can recognize as part of their own creates an emotional connection that, more times than not, leads to a positive viewing experience. So, how does this latest coming-of-age story turn out? This is The Edge Of Seventeen.

The plot: Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), while sardonically trying to survive both high school and her immediately family, namely her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), discovers that her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is going steady with Nadine’s brother Darian (Blake Jenner). In-between venting about her life problems to her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), she is set on a path to come to grips with her life situation, and hopefully be able to overcome her own demons.

Given how we’re dealing with a mixture of Glee-ready passable-as-teens and hardened industry veterans, it is astounding that the acting is this consistently good. Steinfeld is at her absolute best here, channelling teenaged angst in a way that completely bypasses emo self-torture and hits a sweet spot of relatability. Richardson ends up playing second fiddle for a fair bit of the film, but she does really well at helping to keep the heightened emotions from becoming too overblown, Jenner spends most of the film as the walking target for Nadine’s spite but then totally hits it out of the park near the end and Sedgwick plays the overworked mother while working brilliantly alongside Steinfeld and Jenner.

Hayden Szeto hits teenaged gawkiness perfectly, making for a very nice match-up with Steinfeld and the fact that this is his feature film debut is frankly unbelievable because this guy is just too damn good, and Alexander Calvert as Nadine’s crush Nick portrays one of the more realistic quasi-douchebags I’ve seen on film, getting across that feeling of dickishness without it feeling patently outside the realms of reality. And then there’s Woody Harrelson, and it’s really saying something when you have a career as lengthy and fruitful as his and this is easily some of his best work. He’s basically the kind of teacher that we all wish we had back in high school, being on the students’ level in terms of bleak humour and understanding without any of it feeling like posturing, as is usually the case for this kind of mentor figure.

I’ve talked before about indie quirk and how it usually lands on the wrong side of cringe with me. Well, this is possibly the best recent example of that style of writing and something that I honestly can’t fault on pretty much any level. It’s not even the dialogue that ends up delivering that feeling of social awkwardness, although it definitely makes its case when it needs to. Rather, it’s the perfect timing in the delivery of the dialogue that makes the awkwardness stick; the gaps placed between sentences are probably the most accurate I’ve seen in terms of showing that sense of really not knowing what to say… before you inevitably end up saying way too much.

As for what ends up being said, the writing here is insanely sharp in how it depicts what it feels like to be a teenager. It’s incredibly funny in the barbs that are made by Nadine, and yet it is perfectly aware of how petulant she herself is. That said, there’s not really much of a story here; the advertising builds up the conflict between Nadine and Krista, but that actually ends up just being one in a long line of events that, as non-committal as it may sound, feels like real life. The events themselves feel very specific, like the sort of issues that crop up only through genuine human interaction and discomfort, and give a real impression that we are watching snippets of the real world through some very scriptsploitation filmmaking.

I normally wouldn’t even get into discussions like this, even with how personal I can get in these reviews, but the monumentally high praises that this film has gotten already indicate that maybe it isn’t just me that feels this way: I empathise with Nadine in ways that I will forever be ashamed to admit. This is where the hindsight factor kicks in as, even with a good few years separating the me of today from the me back in high school, I still remember acting a lot like her. Specifically, in her inability to cope with how much the world sucks. Hell, as long as I’m already being honest, I still struggle with that to this day. This ends up pushing the film beyond just its insightful writing into something truly universal because, as much as others may be less willing to admit it, there’s a lot of familiarity to be felt with what happens in this film.

The need for validation, the difficulty in handling emotions in appropriate amounts (and settings), the confusion over how distant you can feel from a person of the same age standing right next to you; it seems that it wasn’t just me who went through all that. Now, the film itself makes a sly jab at people who identify too much with the films they watch, but that was probably made in jest because it knows how accurate it’s being. Knowing the absolute hell that is the process of growing up, there’s no better feeling in the world than someone far disconnected from you being able to say “I understand” and actually having the knowledge to back that statement up.

All in all, words cannot express how thankful I am that this film exists. As you’ve probably picked up from how I look at films, emotional connection plays a big part into how I read into films; in that capacity, this is one of the most resonant films of the entire year (this got an early release in 2016, so I’m counting it amongst that list). Through a rather incredible sense of insight about the thoughts and actions of the average teenager and some truly inspired acting, this taps into that realm of familiarity, honesty and humour that makes for the best coming-of-age stories, creating a story worth being told because it has so many moments that make up the collective stories of the audience.

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