'Edge of Seventeen' a Skillful, Sharp Take On Social Reclusion

Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig; Runtime: 104 minutes
Grade: B+

It's tough to depict the cynicism and self-absorption that can overcome teenagers in a fashion that still holds onto the individual's sincere or likable traits. Too often, these portrayals skew in one direction or the other, emphasizing either "normal" teens or those irregular, eccentric attitudes that allow the endearing parts of their personalities to fall by the wayside, especially in coming-of-age teen comedies that amplify certain traits to generate laughs. When the right filmmakers stick to some degree of devotion to evenhandedness and substance, that's when those stories in the coming-of-age, teen-comedy realm start to transcend their intended audience, when they operate in genuine fluctuations in personalities instead of platitudes. The Edge of Seventeen achieves this far better than most dramedies of its kind, boosted by the quick wit and fitting vulgarity that's channeled through an excellent cast of recognizable vets and relative newcomers, especially through Hailee Steinfeld's convincingly erratic shifts in attitude.

The Edge of Seventeen begins in medias res, revealing a fraught Nadine as she arrives in the classroom of her history professor, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), threatening to commit suicide. Precisely why she feels the need to do this isn't made immediately clear, but the voiceover from Nadine starts her explanation, beginning back in her youth to when she met her best friend, Krista. In a time when she was dealing with being bullied and lingering outside the spotlight of her much more popular and successful older brother, Darian, Krista became her one loyal friend through everything. To make matters worse, Nadine's father -- her only other real comfort -- has a heart attack and passes away in her early teens, creating a tough couple of years for her mother (Kyra Sedwick) and her continuously more good-looking and impressive brother (Blake Jenner). Through her eyes, the situation doesn't seem like it could get any worse, until her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts to date her brother, threatening their relationship.

The Edge of Seventeen has a whole lot going for it, largely in how writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig focuses teen angst melodramatics into a bona-fide representation of growing up with social awkwardness, but the relationship between Nadine and Mr. Bruner makes an immediate and lasting impression. Driven by the quick, biting rapport between Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson, it doesn't force this into becoming that predictable student-counselor type of bonding situation; hell, going by the snipes that the two characters take at one another, it's hard to tell at first whether they truly like each other at all. Those who have been involved in that kind of relationship -- the struggling anti-social kid and the laid-back teacher helping them back on track -- know the truth, of course, and observing how Mr. Bruner cautiously, yet unobtrusively, influences Nadine's outlook becomes one of the film's essential strengths. Craig penned some exceptionally clever, uproarious banter between them, which becomes something to really look forward to amid Nadine's escalating screw-ups and meltdowns.

The situation at the heart of The Edge of Seventeen runs the risk of playing out like a teen soap-opera, where the trauma of a girl's best friend and her brother hooking up sends her on an emotional downward spiral toward confronting her own reclusiveness … but that's not the tempo that writer/director Craig establishes here. From how the siblings butt heads to the awkward conversations after Nadine learns about the relationship, her script smooshes together the realness of their interactions with humor that's just the right amount of idiosyncratic and vulgar, mustering laughs while the weight of high-school drama stirs between them all. This transitions into Nadine's introspection and how she resolves her own relationship with the guys in her life, in how she comes to grips with her crush and how she navigates the advances of Erwin, a charmingly tongue-tied student in one of her classes. Craig's grasp on dialogue makes these scenes warm-heartedly humorous and/or painfully awkward, and her filmmaking uses expectations and real-world foibles to steer in fresh, meaningful directions.

Obviously, The Edge of Seventeen wouldn't really work without the right Nadine, as too much or too little strength of personality could swing the authenticity -- and likability -- of her self-absorption and seclusion in odd directions. While she's fallen under the radar with her underwhelming recent body of work, including her stiff turn as a lead in Romeo and Juliet and daughterly roles in the likes of Term Life, Hailee Steinfeld brings some of the befuddled and hostile attributes that worked in those films into her candid, vacillating embodiment of a wounded social recluse.Steinfeld's handling of the character's withdrawn and cynical attitude taps into the right guarded emotionality and antagonism, while her rapport with the fumbling advances of Hayden Szeto's endlessly amusing Erwin offers a glimpse at how two peas in this same pod can have diverse and conflicting traits. Writer/director Craig devises scene after scene that backs her into uncomfortable corners, and Steinfeld's nuanced realization of her impish frustrations and insecurity while fighting out of ‘em ends up being nothing but sincere.

What truly elevates The Edge of Seventeen can be found in the undercurrent of themes about tolerance and the substance of relationships, and how they might survive the whirlwind of destruction surrounding Nadine while she lashes out and stumbles into both positive and negative situations created by her numerous resentments. Through impromptu dates, awkward flirtations, and a lack of verbal filter, writer/director Craig transforms it all into a sympathetic, refined portrait of someone trying to break self-created cycles and gain perspective after having her little world rocked, though it's not so sympathetic that it conceals or mutes her flaws. No, The Edge of Seventeen has a few perceptive surprises in store throughout the resolution to Nadine's emotional bender that highlight her naivete and tunnel-vision, some poignant and inventive character moments that enrich the film to such a degree that it enhances repeat viewings. There's enough winning humor and honest articulation of contemporary teenage conflicts to justify another ride on this Ferris wheel, but those added flourishes in what the characters surrounding Nadine reveal about themselves make it something special.

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