TIFF Review: 'The Edge of Seventeen'

The Edge of Seventeen
(USA, 102 min.)
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto
Programme Galas – Closing Night Selection (World Premiere)
Courtesy VVS Films.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) learns the truth at seventeen. Love is for beauty queens, girls with clear-skinned smiles and all that. High school sucks. It’s miserable, awkward, and frustrating for a girl like Nadine who struggles to fit in at school in the shadow of her much cooler brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Darian loves working out so much that muscles ripple out of his V-necked shirts and make Nadine’s classmates swoon, but Nadine is still growing out of her Vote for Pedro haircut and finding her own style. Luckily, though, she has her BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) who could easily have her pick of any girl in the school to be her wingman. Besties for life, these two are, in this comedy full of sass and humour.

The girls’ friendship hits a major hurdle, however, when Nadine walks in on Kayla giving her brother a hand-job following a drunken party. These things happen as kids explore the proper ratios for hard liquor and orange crush. But when your best friend starts dating your brother, and Kayla refuses Nadine’s ultimatum that she must choose between siblings, besties become frenemies in a snap.

Nadine’s messy predicament only gets worse when her moody behaviour alienates her hard-working mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and coldly rebuffs the one guy at school who clearly digs her (Vancouverite Hayden Szeto). She keeps digging her hole deeper and burying herself like an ostrich in the sand hoping that shutting herself away from the crowd is the best armour for surviving high school.  

The film features sharp, dynamic characters across the spectrum of the ensemble—even the adults have dimensions here—with a well-rounded cast of newbies and veterans who embrace the gawky messiness of growing up. Steinfeld (True Grit, Begin Again) is a marvel as Nadine in her first true lead performance. She’s earnest and funny without a shred of self-consciousness as Nadine struggles to find her voice in the homogenous sea of fish at her school. It’s refreshing to see a star act her age and have a lot of fun doing it too.

Fremon Craig finds actors who tap into the full dimensions of her supporting characters as Harrelson gives an unexpectedly sweet performance as Nadine’s curmudgeonly teddy bear of a teacher, while Sedgewick is a sweet spot of the film as Mona’s frazzled frustration becomes a reflection of Nadine’s hostility. The strength and fullness of Nadine’s character is a rare highlight in the canon of teen comedies and arguably reflects the value of a female voice behind the characters. Just as much as it’s a relief to see Steinfeld play a character who genuinely seems seventeen, it’s refreshing to see mom who isn’t just a shrill bitch. Rather, her relationship to Nadine and Darian in the absence of their father forms the heart of the film. These characters have details and nuances, like Mona’s flappy upper arms and Nadine’s tricky unlikability.

While Harrelson and Sedgewick are highlights of the film, the younger co-stars all bring their own authentic humour to The Edge of Seventeen starting with Jenner’s boy-next-door appeal that echoes his breakthrough work in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and Richardson’s bubbly radiance. Szeto frequently steals the film from Steinfeld as Nadine’s friend and admirer Erwin. He owns the character’s dorky charm, and gives the nerd a rare romantic side, especially as Fremon Craig’s brings the characters together. Nadine’s penchant for word vomit finds a voice in Erwin’s art and the film culminates with a hilarious animated ditty that holds our heroine accountable to her own contradictions. The film gives Nadine a rude awakening to all the life that passes before her eyes as she chooses to remain angry at the world, rather than see the potential in the misfits.

Nadine’s giant snowball of awkward keeps The Edge of Seventeen rolling with laughter as writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig offers a rare teen-set comedy that looks, acts, and sounds like something that could actually happen in a real high school. Without the fo’ shizzlisms, hamburger phones, masturbatory apple pies, and crude humour that frequently fuel comedies about the awkwardness of adolescence, Fremon Craig’s script delivers a winner with its authentic ears and eyes for teen angst. The Edge of Seventeen has the heart of a John Hughes comedy and the smarts of Perks of Being a Wallflower and it’s a refreshing romantic comedy that truly and genuinely surprises. It’s smart enough, too, to go beyond the confines of a teen movie—it’s an authentic and observant comedy that just happens to feature teenage characters. Fremon Craig also has both thumbs on the pulse of contemporary communication between teens as the film uses smartphones and social media effectively (a rare feat) and finds the heartfelt humanity and sense of disaster that comes with crafting the perfect text message.

Seventeen sees a sharp meeting of the minds in newcomer Fremon Craig and Academy Award winning producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, The Simpsons) as the comedy pulls together the old and the new for something fresh and funny. With the look at maturity of a classic studio comedy and the contemporary sensibility of an emerging voice, The Edge of Seventeen is built to last. The Edge of Seventeen deserves to be the next comedy classic.

The Edge of Seventeen screens:
-Sunday, Sept. 18 at 12:00 PM at Ryerson Theatre

It opens in theatres November 18 from VVS films.

TIFF runs Sept. 8-18.
Please visit www.tiff.net for more information.

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