“The Edge of Seventeen” is an honest-to-God slice of adolescent pain and suffering

Image result for the edge of seventeen poster“The Edge of Seventeen”

There are a lot of useless sayings, but one of the most overused verbal cliches in the book is “You are only young once.” Yes, of course you are, but besides just stating the obvious, this is also a saying that people use in order to let someone know that their time as a child is both limited and valuable. “You are only young once, so you better enjoy it,” says an enthusiastic grandfather who notices when you are down in the dumps. Not only are the people who say it unbelievably wrong about the everlasting joy of childhood, but there is a tragic irony to their words. They lived through adolescence, so how in the hell could they possibly tell us to treasure it?

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Childhood has an awfully fascinating way of pulling at our heartstrings. As the late Roger Ebert puts it in his excellent review of Dazed and Confused, “The years between 13 and 18 are among the most agonizing in a lifetime, yet we remember them with nostalgia that blocks out much of the pain.” When your parents tell you about their high school days, discussing their time catching the game-winning pass during the football game or the riotous moments between them and their friends at the lunch table, how often do they talk about all of the countless hours in between those moments that, in the grand scheme of things, seem inconsequential? They must have had them? Nobody’s high school career could possibly be as perfect as that of my parents, or so they tell me.

The Edge of Seventeen is a breath of fresh air thanks to its overwhelming sincerity. This is a film that does not sugarcoat its proceedings. It is a coming of age film set in high school that never bogs itself down with nostalgia. It never seems as if it is reminiscing or yearning, but solely dealing with the crushing lows and sorrows that plague the life of a high school student. The opening scene deals with a girl confiding in one of her teachers that she is going to kill herself. Oddly enough, it is a scene that I found much pleasure in witnessing, but that was thanks to the unembellished nature of the confrontation.

The Edge of Seventeen is not a dark film, however, and I would honestly consider it a comedy before a drama. The film stars Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine, a high school junior struggling with the ambiguity that the “inbetweener” lifestyle entails. She claims there are two types of people in the world: those who radiate confidence and naturally excel at life, and those who hope all of those people die in a big explosion. Nadine is the latter.

The two people she does cherish in life are her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) and her high school history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), whom she spends more time with than most kids her age, and not always to Mr. Bruner’s liking. Nadine has an older brother and a mother whom she lives with. Her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), is the first kind of person. His confidence, charisma, and overall suave likability harshly contrasts with Nadine’s awkward and socially unpleasant nature, a lifestyle that Krista has been moving away from for some time. Nadine’s relatively comfortable routine is disrupted when she finds Krista and Darian have begun seeing each other, placing her into a frenzy of paranoia and confusion that leads her to make some decisions that may change the course of her life.

The Edge of Seventeen’s treatment of adolescence and pain is brilliant, genuine and beautiful. The film felt like a piece sliced from my life and placed on the screen in front of me. First time director Kelly Fremon Craig digs to the very marrow of what it means to be a teenager within the technological age. Cell phones and technological advances that are supposed to connect the world end up alienating the inhabitants as well. Nadine has felt alienated and separate from the rest of the world since her childhood, and Krista’s infatuation with Darian is a final blow to her psyche, letting her know that the rest of the world has won, and it is in this despair that the film reaches its audience. As I said before, this is a film about the crushing lows of high school. None of the spiraling highs are evident, the very few that occur.

The film does offer quite a bit of humor through the protagonist’s misfortunes and a stellar, intelligent script. The writing is ingenious, many of the scenes walking a thin tightrope between depressing and riotous. Much of the dialogue calls back to such coming of age classics as The Breakfast Club, Say Anything, and Juno. Nadine is a character I wish I could spend the rest of my life with, and Hailee Steinfeld plays her with a fascinating conviction. The funniest scenes are through the conversations between Nadine and Mr. Bruner, played to deadpan perfection by Harrelson. To give you a little insight into his character, he follows up Nadine’s confession of suicide with a little suicide note for himself, obviously mocking her stereotypical delusion of finally sticking it to the world by no longer taking part in it.

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Never have I ever connected with a film as fully as I did with The Edge of Seventeen. It struck a chord with me. This can most likely be said for every person who has ever had to deal with the aching anguish of angst, but I saw so much of myself in this film; the dialogue, the situations, the emotions, and especially Nadine’s character all spoke to me. The years between grades nine and 12 are the loneliest of a lifetime, as it is the time when you are the most vulnerable. You are discovering who you are, and it can be scary. The Edge of Seventeen does not plague the screen with illusions of teenage grandeur and gleeful nostalgia, but of adolescent torment and despair, but not without a hint of hope because, just like all stages of life, it does come to an end.

4 out of 5