The comedies of the late John Hughes were the gilt edge standard for coming of age films in the 80s, but more recently the genre seems to have been given over to more raunchy fare full of crude humour, jokes about sex and genitalia. A dark comedy about adolescent angst, rebellion and the uncertainties of life, The Edge of Seventeen has a darker sensibility than seminal films of Hughes, and is superior to a lot of the recent coming of age comedies.
Nadine Franklin (played by Hailee Steinfeld, from True Grit) is a socially awkward, unhappy and jaded 17-year old who is at an emotional crossroads. A deeply troubled girl and something of a social misfit and who doesn’t even wear the coolest clothes at school, Nadine is still struggling to get over the sudden death of her father, with whom she was close. To complicate matters Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend since childhood, has hooked up with her brother Damian (Bruce Jenner, from Everybody Wants Some), the school jock and the most popular boy in school. With her self absorbed mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) often absent, Nadine grows angry and frustrated at this relationship and struggles to cope with the stresses of daily life.
Her suicidal thoughts are dismissed with droll humour and acerbic observations by her history teacher Mr Bruner (a wonderful performance from Woody Harrelson). Meanwhile Nadine is attracted to Erwin (Hayden Szeto), the shy and guileless aspiring filmmaker, and also to Nick (Alexander Calvert), the good looking bad boy of her class. She seems unable to choose between the two.
The Edge of Seventeen shares its title with both the Stevie Nicks song of the same name, and the thoughtful 1984 gay coming of age film that was set against the backdrop of the last day of high school. This is the directorial debut for Kelly Fremon Craig, who previously scripted the little seen Post Grad way back in 2009, and she seems to have a great understanding of what a teenage girl experiences at this troubled time of their lives.
There is an honesty to Craig’s articulate script which serves up a well drawn and realistic portrait of the fears, insecurities and anxieties of its teenaged protagonist that avoids many of the usual cliches of the genre. She is non-judgemental of Nadine’s actions and never patronises her audience with cheap sentimentality or dialogue that never rings true. There is even a great soundtrack that accompanies the drama.
Craig draws some great performances from her cast. Steinfeld delivers her best performance since her breakthrough debut in True Grit, and delivers a mature performance that captures the adolescent rage and confuse emotions of her character. Initially her Nadine is a self centred, righteous and unlikeable character, whose grating and unsympathetic nature becomes softer and warmer as the film progresses. Nadine’s life is something of an emotional roller coaster, and her many frustrating experiences build to a cathartic conclusion.
Harrelson brings a nice deadpan and laconic style to his performance as the long suffering but ultimately compassionate Bruner and this marks some of his best work on screen for some time. Some of the best scenes feature the back and forth exchanges between Nadine and Mr Bruner, which are tinged with a dark vein of humour. The prickly mother/daughter dynamic is also well handled, and Sedgwick makes the most of her couple of showy moments. Szeto brings a sensitive touch to his role as the nerdy classmate.
This low budget film has been produced by James L Brooks (Terms of Endearment) and his influence can be felt throughout with the deft mix of pathos and laughs. The film will invite comparisons to last year’s acerbic and bracing The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which featured on some critics’ lists of the best films of the year.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Glass Castle – home entertainment review
- Alien: Covenant – home entertainment review
- Black Butterfly – HE review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television