Friday, November 18, 2016


Capturing the pain that comes with growing up in a meaningful, compelling way is no easy task. Films that showcase one of the most unforgettable periods of life – the pivotal point between childhood and adulthood – oftentimes are completely forgettable themselves. This year, however, fans of independent cinema were treated to The Edge of Seventeen, the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig. Rich, authentic performances and a compelling, genuine story drove this small-scale film to critical acclaim and it is one of the best films of 2016.

The Edge of Seventeen tells the story of Nadine, played by Academy Award-nominated actor Hailee Steinfeld, a seventeen-year old girl who is fed up with life. “I just had the worst thought,” she tells her best friend Krista, “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself.” Nadine’s father died almost four years before the start of The Edge of Seventeen, leaving Nadine in a house with a depressed, neurotic mother and a brother who doesn’t seem to care about anything except for himself. Her friend Krista has been her sole companion since second grade, but life takes a drastic turn for the worst when Krista begins dating Nadine’s brother Darian who only interacts with his sister on a sarcastic, cruel level. So begins the twists and turns of Seventeen.

The make-or-break element in a coming-of-age film lies in its ability to craft compelling characters. The Edge of Seventeen thrives in this area by giving the audience something unexpected – a cast who all share a sense of brokenness and weakness that makes them oftentimes unlikeable, but always relatable. Nadine is bitter and cynical. Her sense of self is wholly reliant on the anger and pain she feels inside. Krista is oblivious and immature, a perfect foil to Nadine in both good times and in bad. Darian handles the grief of losing his father by numbing and hardening himself into an unfeeling rock. His mother does the exact opposite. Nowhere do you find a shining example of morality or stability. Instead, you see reflected in all of their faces a shade of how things should be.

The film’s most stirring character, however, comes in Woody Harrelson’s beautifully-biting performance as Nadine’s teacher. The only person at school who truly understands the bitter Nadine, Mr. Bruner is the moral compass of the film in his own broken, jaded way. Throughout Seventeen, he plays a dark form of comic relief, turning his student’s depression and anxiety into a source of humor, finding ways to twist her fears into a darkly cynical joke. And yet, he stands at the credits as the person who truly held the crumbling psyche of Nadine together. Coming-of-age films typically have a teacher character that gives advice or support and pushes the plot along in an occasionally lazy fashion. Harrelson’s character inverts that trope, never truly giving any genuine advice, but instead pushing Nadine to embrace the pain of life and stand against it as a strong, unmoving individual apart from the wise words of others or the hurtful things they may do.

That, in the end, is the message of The Edge of Seventeen. Above all else, the key to growing up in the world of Kelly Fremon Craig is to embrace that life will be painful. It will sometimes feel not worth living. It will oftentimes not make sense. However, through everything, the way to truly live life to the fullest is to brace yourselves against the pain and accept that the hurt you feel is something the people around you all understand in their own special way. The next four sentences contain a SPOILER for part of the film. In a pivotal scene of the movie, Harrelson and Steinfeld are sitting together in a car. He turns to her and says, “I think we all know what needs to be said.” It’s in this moment that you expect Mr. Bruner to deliver a stirring monologue that will save Nadine in her spiral downwards. Instead, he unlocks the doors and tells her simply, with a smile, “Get out of the car. I’ll see you on Monday.”

Get out of the car.

In a world as hurting and full of anger and pain as ours, the pain of loss and rejection is nearly universal. Craig’s message to the audience through her characters is simple: we need to get out of the car. We need to face our fears. We need to embrace the freedom in our pain.

I can’t review this film without briefly calling attention to the character of Erwin, played by Hayden Szeto, an Asian-Canadian actor. Asian romantic leads are rare. Even more rarely are they written as real, not-stereotyped, attractive characters. Erwin is a caring, talented, strong individual that stands as a gold-level example of Asian representation in cinema. I was ecstatic to see his character done so well in such a beautiful film. I look forward to seeing him in more roles in the future.

The Edge of Seventeen is not an impressive-looking film. Nothing about it feels like a popcorn film that will appeal to a broad audience. But nothing about it feels forced or faked, and the actors shine in each of their roles. Real, human emotion courses through its cinematic bloodstream.

I adore this film. Of all my theater experiences this year, this one stands apart as the best.

Watch The Edge of Seventeen as soon as you get the opportunity. You won’t regret it.

Jonathan's Score: 10/10

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