Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick, Hayden Szeto and Woody Harrelson
Release Date: Nov 30
In 2004, My Chemical Romance released the song ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)’; an angst-ridden anthem that spoke volumes to emotionally frustrated teenagers. It is very easy to look back and feel just a little embarrassed at how invested we were in songs like this.
The inherent drudgery of our own teenage years might seem trivial now. But that doesn’t make it less painful for the young adults trying to figure themselves out today.
This is the message carried by The Edge of Seventeen, with varying degrees of success.
Our guide through young adulthood is Nadine (Steinfeld), self-conscious misery-guts with a sharp tongue and quick wit. She trudges wearily through the halls of her high school, sampling the full spectrum of teen awkwardness. She writes texts to her crush that she never sends. She stands silently at the edge of crowds in parties. In one brilliantly awful moment, she is likened to Danny DeVito from the movie Twins.
All things considered, she takes life’s abuse pretty well.
That is until her best/only friend Krista (Richardson) starts dating her older brother Darian (Jenner), the smart and popular Schwarzenegger to her DeVito.
Like many high school films, there’s not much of a story here. We mostly just watch Nadine make or develop relationships, with very little happening in between. It’s not a bad thing because, even if Nadine isn’t immediately likable, she is very relatable.
The girl who encourages her reflection to just ‘go out and meet people’ and telling her brother to ‘go suck several dicks’ is someone we all used to be. Steinfeld deserves high praise for carrying the film so well, as it rests almost entirely on her shoulders. She is fully believable in her eagerness, her cynicism and especially her pain.
Her likability fluctuates as a result and that, like almost every other flaw in the film, could be chalked up to capturing the teenage spirit. She comes off as funny, bitchy and melancholy and none of these emotions feels far removed from her character. She’s a lonely teen who feels the world is against her. She deals with this in whatever way she can.
This is an examination of complex emotions and it would be redundant to label her as simply ‘likable’ or ‘unlikable’.
Much like her personality, the tone of the film is a little chaotic and unbalanced. If you are determined to enjoy the movie, excuses can easily be made for this.
“That’s what being a teenager is like!”
Teenagers have mood swings. They change their attitudes in seconds. Everything is confusing, intense and incoherent. The Edge of Seventeen admirably reflects that.
Even if it is intentional however, that ambiguity doesn’t work in the film’s favour. It wants to tell an emotionally driven story, but is tentative about letting its guard down. Poignant moments are dulled by the film’s refusal to fully commit. A crucial scene in a car from Nadine’s past is dismissed too readily, considering it drives the entire story. A major turning point in her love-life is completely overwhelmed by (not-unfunny) awkward dialogue and visual gags.
And Kyra Sedgwick, brilliantly cast as Nadine’s high-strung mother, has plenty of wonderful moments but is pulled in two directions between tragic figure and comic relief. Her and Nadine’s relationship begs further exploration but it is often side-lined.
Again, a possible reflection of how teens view the world.
It’s a shame because, unbalanced as it is, the story is an engaging one. It doesn’t win many awards for originality, but it lands some serious truths straight into your lap. For example, the outcome of an uncomfortable first date is heavily foreshadowed and plays out exactly as you might expect. You will forgive the predictability though because it captures the moment perfectly.
We’ve been there. We’ve been the person she is. We see every mistake we’ve made and every notion we’ve had, only now we see it through the eyes of our older and wiser selves.
This cynicism isn’t limited to Nadine’s naivety either. The supporting cast are weaved haphazardly into Nadine’s story, but they all hand in satisfying and believable performances. Try not to smile as epitome-of-teenage Krista calmly explains to Nadine that she ‘can’t help how she feels’. The juicy drama between these two friends has great potential, but oddly loses focus in later scenes.
Instead, the film plays it safe, veering off to explore the low-hanging fruit of love interests and sibling rivalries. Again, while there’s not a lot of curve-balls being thrown, it’s enjoyable viewing and occasionally very emotional. This is especially true of Nadine and Darian, one of the only relationships that doesn’t compromise emotional honesty for giggles.
While the overall tone is uneven, it should be noted that the individual scenes are solid. It’s not uproariously hilarious, but it is consistently funny throughout. The best moments can be attributed to Woody Harrelson, Nadine’s bitterly sarcastic history teacher. Despite being very much a side-character, his performance throughout is utterly magnetic and delightful. When it comes to comic acting, he is a true professional and his role here is a sharp reminder of that.
The Edge of Seventeen makes some odd directional choices, but it’s an easy watch that draws a strong performance from its leading lady. It’s a fun, engaging film that brings empathy and honesty to the often dismissed plight of teenagers.
At long last, we can take someone seriously when they say “I’m not okay, I’m not O-fucking-kay!”
Written by Stephen Hill