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movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson

The Edge of Seventeen movie review: bleed for this

The Edge of Seventeen green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
This pseudo-80s teen dramedy feels like the flip side of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, bursting with generosity and empathy for its forlorn drama queen.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): desperate for movies about girls
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Welcome to this year’s one movie about how absolutely awful life is when you’re a teenaged girl. And if we’re only gonna get one a year — and that’s us being lucky — at least 2016’s is the spectacularly goodtweet The Edge of Seventeen.

Hailee Steinfeld is sharp and funny and shrewd as a teenaged “old soul”…
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Hailee Steinfeld (Barely Lethal, Pitch Perfect 2) is sharp and funny and shrewd as Nadine, a high-school junior in an unnamed American suburb who considers herself an “old soul” whom no one understands, whose existence is torture itself while everyone else is, clearly, living a nonstop party. And that was before her best (and only) friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), started dating her perfect and popular and oh-so-annoying older brother, senior Darian (Blake Jenner). Is there no end to this hell on earth? It’s sorta Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from Jeanie Bueller’s perspective, only without any playing of kooky hooky and with a whole lot more smacking down of self-centered adolescent angsttweet to come.

The Edge of Seventeen Hailee Steinfeld Woody Harrelson

We should all have had a teach as cool as Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who accepts Nadine’s abuse and then dishes a smackdown right back to her.tweet

It’s not just the flip side of Ferris that makes Edge feel a bit like a lost John Hughes teen comedy only just barely updated for the 21st century: though Nadine’s bumping-into-adulthood wakeup call will culminate in a sequence revolving around a texting accident, much of this could be taking place anytime between the 1980s and today. The tools of adolescence may have changed in the last 30 years, but the emotional experience hasn’t. Director and screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig — who wrote 2009’s Post Grad, which was an object lesson in how not to tell stories about young women in the same way that Edge is a master class in getting it right — smartly tweaks the limitations of a low budget into that timeless vibe.tweet Nadine’s wardrobe has a lot of retro secondhand stuff (as distinct from pricey vintage, that is), the kids all drive beat-up hand-me-down cars (if they drive at all), and the school’s decor (and equipment) doesn’t look like it has been updated since Reagan was president. This ain’t no upper-upper-middle-class Hollywood gloss on high school but something that will be instantly recognizable to anyone under 50 as close to the ugly mundanity of slogging through life as a teenager.

Nadine’s emotional roller coaster is universal and perfectly pitched.
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(It’s Nadine’s love of all things 80s — like that hideous jacket she’s wearing in the image above — that leads her to conclude that she’s an old soul. Which will make anyone who actually remembers being a teen in the 80s feel genuinely old. And then this will make it worse: The distance in time between Nadine today and John Hughes’s comedies is the exact same distance in time between iconic high-school comedy Back to the Future and the 1950s world it harked back to. So for the likes of Nadine, the 80s look as quaint and amusing as the 50s do to me. Ugh.)

The Edge of Seventeen Hailee Steinfeld Hayden Szeto

Poor Hayden Szeto, doomed to play lovelorn Erwin, who longs for Nadine, and also to be a 31-year-old man portraying a teenager.tweet

But it’s the universality of Nadine’s roller-coaster melodrama that is so perfectly pitched here… and much of what she suffers and learns from and grows up through are the kinds of deeply personal teen traumas that boys as well as girls can empathize with. It’s really important that we get movies that focus on the uniquely female aspects of growing up, as we did with last year’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. But it’s also vital that boys learn that girls are not so different from them, and that girls’ experiences are human experiences. Here Nadine is a giant steaming puddle of self-hatred combined with an inflated sense of self-importance, of the aching awkwardness that blows the smallest of slights up into the biggest of disasters, of cynicism clashing with optimism, of an unreasonable inability to accept change combined with the fervent desire for everything to be different.

These are things we all cringe to recall about our teen years (which makes this movie perfectly enjoyable by everyone who has already gotten past this, to remind us that being young is horrible and that we should cherish our age and acquired wisdom). The title of the film doesn’t refer so much to Nadine’s age — she is already 17 as the movie opens, not merely verging on it — but to the edge in a more dangerous way: the bleeding edge, an edge you fall off. This is all about the bite, the sting, the agony of shedding that narcissism and ending the pity party, which we all have to do without anyone ever telling us how much better we’ll feel on the other side of it. The Edge of Seventeen is bursting with the generosity that only that hindsight can allowtweet: perhaps the most beautiful and amazing thing about the movie is how Nadine is simultaneously nasty and unpleasant yet also deeply sympathetic. We feel her pain, because we remember it, and we understand and appreciate her triumph even more than she does.


green light 4 stars

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The Edge of Seventeen (2016) | directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
US/Can release: Nov 18 2016
UK/Ire release: Nov 30 2016

MPAA: rated R for sexual content, language and some drinking, all involving teens
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex references)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Bluejay

    Huh! Thanks for this review. This film totally slipped under my radar, but I’ll seek it out now.

    Poor Hayden Szeto, doomed… to be a 31-year-old man portraying a teenager.

    I haven’t heard of this actor before; it’s cool that he’s adding to much-needed Asian representation onscreen. The age thing IS a little iffy, especially since he’s playing opposite Steinfeld, who’s 19 (much closer to her character’s age). This seems to keep happening: Asian actors are thought of as “younger-looking” than their age, and so are cast to play younger characters. (See: Keiko Agena, who plays a character 10 years younger on Gilmore Girls, and Ming-Na Wen, playing a badass SHIELD agent whom most fans probably don’t think of as in her 50s.) As an Asian American, I’ve gotten lots of surprised comments from people who thought I was younger than I turned out to be (this usually happens when they find out I’m old enough to have a teenage daughter).

    But folks, I’d argue that we don’t look younger than our age. THIS IS WHAT WE LOOK LIKE AT OUR AGE. Szeto doesn’t look surprisingly young, at least from his photo here; he looks pretty much as I would expect a 31-year-old Asian male to look. I wonder if casting older Asian actors in younger roles is warping our expectation of how certain groups of people should look in real life. High school Asian kids don’t look like 30-something Asian adults. I hope their dates and crushes don’t expect them to.

  • Bluejay

    Also, MaryAnn, curious to know what you think of this take on it (comments are worth a read too):

    http://www.themarysue.com/edge-of-seventeen-depression/

  • All of the teenagers looked too old to varying degrees, and Szeto’s Asian-ness didn’t mitigate that for him much. I would’ve guessed mid- to late twenties, same as the guy who played Nick. It’s one of the only things that annoyed me about the movie.

  • Interesting article. I wasn’t sure what to make of the scene in question, where (SPOILER, maybe, except it’s like the first scene) Nadine is talking suicide and her teacher is bantering with her, not taking it seriously. We’re meant to assume that she’s not really suicidal, the teacher is perceptive enough to realize this and understand what she really needs, so it’s all okay. I went with it. But I’m also vastly ignorant on the subject. Is it possible, even when you know the person pretty well, to tell the difference between someone suffering clinical depression and someone just having a really shitty day?

  • The thing that annoyed me about John Hughes movies, back when I was in his target demographic, was the oversimplified characterization. The villainous were truly villainous. Just about all the adults were awful or clueless.

    I liked The Edge of Seventeen because it gets the characters right. Nadine’s mother is flawed and messed up, but she’s also likable and trying to do the right thing. The “perfect” brother is neither perfect nor secretly an asshole, and his interactions with Nadine feel true. (I’d like to see a movie about the brother almost as much as I’d like to see a Girlhood movie featuring Mason’s sister, though the latter ship has obviously sailed.)

  • Bluejay

    Maybe their characters have all flunked and been held back a few years. :-)

  • I don’t think it’s a particular thing to cast Asian actors as younger than their actual ages: it’s a long Hollywood tradition to cast actors of all races as old as their early 30s to play high schoolers.

  • SPOILERS

    I disagree with that assessment. Obviously, I am not any sort of expert in diagnosing clinical depression, but I didn’t see anything like that in Nadine. I think it’s blatantly clear that her suicide threat is in no way genuine. I think it is clear that, while she has had some trauma in her life (her dad’s death, her mom’s issues), her problems are of the usual adolescent sort involving overwrought emotions that dominate her entire psyche. She does not seem clinically depressed to me. I don’t think the film minimizes her experience and her feelings, but is instead all about how part of growing up is learning to move past this stage.

    It bothers me that so many comments following that piece condemn it based purely on the author’s assessment. I wonder if all those saying that they suffer from depression saw the film, they would actually see a depressed teen there.

  • By the by …

    Am I the only moviegoer who isn’t offended by Nadine’s jacket? People keep saying mean things about Nadine’s jacket. I honestly have no idea what’s supposed to be wrong with it.

  • It’s 80s retro.

    80s fashion is not particularly worth remembering, never mind bringing back. :-)

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