The Edge of Seventeen (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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Nadine has reached the threshold of her pain.  Her hormones cry for pleasure while her crush doesn't know she exists, her best friend is dating her jerk brother, her mother takes every opportunity to tell her how useless life is, and the memory of her long-dead father continues to haunt her.  Kelly Fremon Craig wrote the screenplay for and directs The Edge of Seventeen, which stars Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner, Haley Lu Richardson, and Kyra Sedgwick.

The Edge of Seventeen's most subtle joke winds up well before the movie starts and doesn't land until tragedy strikes about ten minutes in.  The title, which I'll shorten to Edge moving forward, evokes the Stevie Nicks song of the same name minus one definite article.  You'd be forgiven for thinking Edge would be freewheeling in the same vein as writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig's movie is advertised as a comedy-drama.  Edge doesn't recall Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen," but her (actual) best song "Stand Back."  Edge, and "Stand Back," both hover with uncertainty at the precipice of ostensible maturity while begging desperately for someone to understand.

Desperation can be mined for great comedy, and I could see some folks laughing at Nadine's (Hailee Steinfeld) stumbles as she loses herself in depression.  Nadine's heartbreaking opening scene, as Steinfeld plays Nadine's anxiety and depression with an almost worrying level of skill, establishes Edge's emotional pain so completely that it threatens to overwhelm the comedy.  My opening hunch was correct, as Nadine is not the only character in immense pain, and Seventeen rolls on with everyone struggling to communicate their pain while finding new ways to hurt the ones they love.

Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson have a sort of bad cop/bad cop arrangement with their student/teacher relationship that's one of the best parts of The Edge of Seventeen.

Truth is Edge doesn't work as a comedy and no amount of Woody Harrelson side-eye can convince me otherwise.  But Harrelson, continuing a streak of recent excellence as Nadine's teacher Mr. Bruner, shows how well Edge works as a drama.  Watch the way Harrelson manages Mr. Bruner's annoyance as Nadine zooms ahead with self-effacing dialogue, and how starkly it contrasts the worry that softens the contours of his face as Nadine says, "I don't really have any friends right now."  This one shift in Harrelson's expression hints at how far away Edge is from its surface-level contemporaries like Easy A or Brooklyn.  There will be no sentimentalizing pain, no laughs to ease it, and all that's left is the hard work of finding ways to cope.

Edge dives into Nadine's pain with empathy, not pity.  Craig works with cinematographer Doug Emmett to present Nadine as she sees herself - a fractured mess with little idea of who she is anymore.  Nadine is often blurry, fading into or out of clarity as abandonment and abuse hit her, and even when she's in a crowd Craig and Emmett find a way to frame her so she is alone.  The cinematography works with such subtlety that by the time big emotional moments go down, with dark colors splashing onto Steinfeld's skin, that I was hit all at once with how repressed and unhappy she's been.  The climactic moment when she should be claiming her physical confidence with a man who is her dream come true is nothing but purple romance broken by rain.

The most impressive aspect of Edge comes from Craig's treatment of every character.  We spend most of our time with Nadine but it's clear everyone has their own pain.  Nadine's not always in "the right", sometimes pushing her pain on others in unhealthy ways.  The most complicated relationship is between Nadine and her brother Darian (Blake Jenner).  He keeps his body in perfect condition because of their father's fatal heart attack, which Nadine interprets as selfishness, and Nadine brings up a story about Darian's sadness in a misguided attempt to communicate her own pain.  Craig's nuanced writing keeps both characters in perspective, limiting their dialogue to the blood each knows they can extract from the other, while neither one being "wrong" even if Nadine's approach isn't healthy.

That's the nature of depression.  I've struggled with it for years, sometimes fighting the need to scream, punch the ground, and cry into a pillow until I need to sleep.  It can come out of nowhere and there's not always a clear source.  For Nadine, the most obvious source of her depression is her father's death, the less obvious if more damaging is her relationship with mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick).  Mona is the closest thing Edge has to a villain, abusing Nadine as a child, and sharing nihilistic philosophies when Mona's date doesn't go the way she wanted.  Craig embraces an uncomfortable truth in the gradual depiction of Mona as someone who never should have been a parent.  There's no happily ever after for Mona, no tearful reconciliation with her daughter, and what healthy steps forward she's able to take are the result of realizing how terrible a mother she's been.

Nadine is desperately alone with her hormones and depression, quietly emphasized with great cinematography.

It's not all despair and lashing out.  The closest I came to laughing was at the awkwardness of Nadine's semi-courtship with her insecure classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto).  In a movie boasting no shortage of keenly observed moments, none produced as much hope for Nadine's well-being as her pure laughter at Erwin's attempt to kiss her.  Even Nadine's aborted romance with her dream hunk Nick (Alexander Calvert) is rooted in mutual misunderstanding before collapsing due to Nick's quickly revealed lack of concern for her.

Craig's insights into depression make Edge a better movie than if the same material was played for laughs.  Steinfeld is clearly up for whatever storytelling Craig decided on and owns every inch of the screen.  I'm grateful Craig's instincts steered Edge away from comedy and toward a conclusion as uncertain of Nadine's future as it is hopeful.  Laughter may help dull pain - but it can't replace the deeply felt insight of Edge.

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The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner, Haley Lu Richardson, and Kyra Sedgwick.

Posted by Andrew

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