The coming-of-age story has always been a genre of film for which I have a massive soft spot. Perhaps I enjoy the melodramatic themes and tensions that always seem to go along with bildungsroman, perhaps I am trying to escape from my adulthood, or perhaps it lies in the simple fact that every single one of us has, in one way or another, come of age in the past. From Steven Spielberg to John Hughes to Wes Anderson, there are many different ways to tell a coming-of-age story, and I was excited to see what directions Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge Of Seventeen would take.
The films stars Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a misfit teen whose life becomes incredibly complicated when her best (and only) friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her older, and much more popular, brother Darian (Blake Jenner). With the premature death of her father being a formative event in her ‘tweenhood’, Nadine looks for guidance through this awkward period not from her distant mother (played by Kyra Sedgwick), but from her acerbic, sharp witted and mockingly charming teacher Mr Bruner (Woody Harrelson). In many ways, The Edge Of Seventeen operates as a checklist of coming-of-age tropes and story beats, familial tension, check, friendship tension, check, a messy foray in to the world of sexuality, check. What prevents the film from being just another forgettable journey in to elevated teen problems, though, is a fantastic leading performance and a self knowing tone that prefers dark comedy to easy, conventional gags that one might associate with the genre. From the very beginning the narrative follows a somewhat off beat path, with the opening scene being a conversation about suicide between Nadine and Mr Bruner, and a funny conversation at that. This fusion of the dark and the comedic stays strong throughout the story and the economic pace of the picture never allows you to get truly comfortable, much like the emotions of the protagonist throughout.
Though we have seen literally hundreds, if not thousands, of films centred around teenagers who are just trying to figure the whole thing out, there is something about The Edge Of Seventeen that feels more authentic, more relatable than, for example, the like of Easy A or The Spectacular Now. The movie’s premise is extremely small, ‘girl falls out with friend over a boy’, but in creating such an engaging, endearing feature length story out of that simple hook, the filmmakers have perfectly encapsulated exactly what it feels like to be a teenager, when a basic problem like that really can feel like the end of the world.
As I mentioned briefly before, one of the keys to The Edge Of Seventeen’s success is Hailee Steinfeld, who in my opinion, is pretty brilliant. Steinfeld has been on my radar since 2010 where as a 13 year old feature film debutant, she blew my mind in the Coen brothers’ True Grit. To bring up Easy A one more time, one gets the same ‘this is a real star’ feeling whilst watching Steinfeld as Nadine as one did when watching Emma Stone as Olive, and though she perhaps hasn’t fully realised her potential in the years since True Grit with roles in middling pictures like Ender’s Game and Pitch Perfect 2, she is once again a revelation here as the painfully awkward, poignantly sensitive but naturally humorous protagonist. Without empathy and connection to the character, the film could very easily become grating, but Steinfeld perfectly guides the audience through the trials and tribulations of teen hood with a natural command of the screen that cannot be taught. As school teacher Mr Bruner, Woody Harrelson brings a sort of cynical, clear headed, adult perspective to the proceeding that grounds the melodrama of the narrative and helps the film to retain a knowing feel of self awareness. Harrelson plays it cool and whilst the majority of their conversation is cruel banter, he provides a support system for Nadine that she cannot find anywhere else, and the screen time that the two actors share together is some of the most enjoyable in the entire film.
Overall, The Edge Of Seventeen is one of my favourite hidden gems of the year. It has arrived on screens at a time of the year when much bigger budget movies are taking up the airwaves and advertising spots, the type of film that runs the risk of being completely overlooked in the run up to awards season. Hailee Steinfeld gives one my favourite performances of the year, and though she is definitely the best thing about the film, the tone and execution make it a sure fire winner for anybody who, like me, has a penchant for coming-of-age tales. Highly recommended!