This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
Nadine is a smart, sardonic and socially awkward teenage girl who already hates everything about being a teenager but when her best friend starts dating her much loved (by everyone but Nadine, anyway) brother, things go from bad to unbearable.
What we thought
The Edge of Seventeen has exactly the kind of plot that should have all but the most emo of teenage girls running for the hills in terror, so how exactly did it become - and quite easily at that - one of my very favourite films of the year? And not at all in a guilty pleasure kind of way either, but in the sense that I am absolutely willing to go to bat for it as one of the year's most satisfying and perfectly conceived and executed films.
Well, for a start, it does once again prove the old (or perhaps just recently invented) adage that stories are, more often than not, about far more than their plot. It's true, the basic plot of the Edge of Seventeen is nothing we haven't seen before and, though it does buck cliché a number of times throughout its running time, it just as often gleefully embraces its own generic conventions – most especially as it moves towards its utterly effective but undeniably clean and cozy ending. All this matters not a jot.
While it would be rather disingenuous to say that the film has nothing to do with its basic story line, it reminds me of some of my favourite coming of stories in that the plot is there purely to drive along the characters as they try and come to terms with that horribly messy period between childhood and adulthood.
Quadrophenia, the album by the Who that remains my go-to exploration of adolescence (the film's OK but it's more about the 1960s Mod movement than anything else), has a story that can literally be summed up as “kid sits on a rock at sea, wonders how he got there, has spiritual epiphany” but is a powerful, poignant and quite thorough examination of adolescent angst from very nearly every possible angle imaginable. The same can be said for everything from Freaks and Geeks (“high school sucks if you're not part of the in-crowd – and sometimes even then”) to the Fault in Our Stars (“cancer's a bitch, especially when you're young”).
Like the best coming of age stories, then, the Edge of Seventeen isn't about its plot developments so much as it is about an adolescent trying to figure out who they truly are and what their place is in the world and, like only the very best of the very best of those, it does so in a way that is both utterly truthful and breathtakingly entertaining.
While the film features some wonderful supporting performances, most notably from Woody Harrelson who is just terrific as Nadine's equally hilariously acerbic teacher, and is filled with little details that give even the smallest supporting characters dimension and personality, most of what's truly great about the film comes down to Nadine – both in how she's written by first-time writer/ director, Kelly Fremon Craig, and by how she's portrayed by Hailee Steinfeld, giving what is easily her best performance since her breakout in the Coen Brothers' True Grit.
Steinfeld's natural charm, charisma and sheer likability keep us very much on Nadine's side but Fremon Craig doesn't shy away from making her an often exasperating and thoroughly complex character. The way she embodies the quintessential teenage trait of being both a know-it-all and hopelessly naive is just beautifully observed, as are all the contradictory parts of her nature. She scoffs at both the shallowness and stupidity of her peers but is hopelessly shallow and stupid when it comes to her obsessive crush on her class' bad boy; she whines that she has no friends but she is ruthlessly cruel to a similarly geeky and awkward boy who clearly likes her and, perhaps most egregiously, while she constantly bemoans the fact that no one understands her, she constantly and, for the most part, remorselessly refuses to see the people around her as more than one-dimensional caricatures.
That she remains so endearing even at her worst is a real testament to the talents of both Steinfeld and Fremon Craig and that beautiful ability to embrace and run with the film's contradictions, is present throughout the entire production. Fremon Craig isn't a major stylist in terms of her direction but the confidence with which she tells her story and perfectly balances the comedy with the drama; the acerbic sharpness with the unabashedly sentimental and the intentionally generic with the inventive, doesn't just make her a filmmaker to watch but one who is apparently already fully formed and, in some respects, working on a level that many a writer/ director could only dream of.
Admittedly, with a debut this impressive, it's entirely possible that Kelly Fremon Craig might go the way of Richard Kelly or even Diablo Cody (whose Juno is clearly a kindred spirit with this film) and fail desperately to live up to her astonishing first feature. Hopefully, of course, this won't happen and she'll continue to grace our screens with films this beautifully observed, this truthful, this funny and this moving for many years to come but, even if she doesn't, even if she never makes another film again, we will always have the Edge of Seventeen. And that's almost enough.