Saturday, November 26, 2016

THIS TOO SHALL PASS...BUT WHEN?!?!: a review of "The Edge Of Seventeen"

Produced by James L. Brooks
Written and Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
**** (four stars)

It never ceases to amaze me that for a market that is driven by and fully caters to youth culture, that how little any material of any artistic worth is truly made for that very market. But, when something of high quality does miraculously arrive, I truly believe that we should cherish it and do what we are able to ensure the intended audience is able to receive the cinematic message.

This year, while we have been witness to the 30th anniversaries of both John Hughes' seminal "Pretty In Pink" (1986) and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), these two milestones are notable for so much more than any sense of nostalgia or the longevity of these works that have transcended generations of viewers an fans. What is also notable is that there was once a time in Hollywood when stories about teenagers could be easily produced for a mass audience and with a certain regularity.

Yes, most of those films were exploitative but once figures and filmmakers like Cameron Crowe, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge and unquestionably John Hughes arrived and changed the game, creating feature films that were equally personal, artistic and truthful statements to the adolescent experience, there truly was no going back to the mindless sex comedies of old, the very ones that treated their teenaged audiences as product rather than people deserving of having their stories told to themselves as best as possible.

Yet, long after what I always refer to as that "Golden Age Of Teen Films," essentially more than concluded with Crowe's stunning, aching "Say Anything..." (1989), films regarding and capturing the teen age experience became few and far between, regardless of quality. To think, we have been fortunate to have Hecklerling's "Clueless" (1993), Mark Waters and Tina Fey's "Mean Girls" (2004), Jason Reitman's "Juno" (2007), Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010), Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" (2012), James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" (2013) and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" (2015) but do regard the time span of those films in relation to each other as well as to Hughes' oeuvre which collected all six of his teenage themed films in a scant three year period. Yes, it is better to have some than none at all, but I think you are able to discern of which I am writing.

At this time, I am thrilled and excited to not only add a new entry to the teen film genre, but truly one of the finest that I have been so fortunate to screen. "The Edge Of Seventeen," the debut feature film from Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig, not only completely fulfills the promise and high bar quality of the genre as set by John Hughes and other like minded writers and filmmakers, it proudly displays a multi-faceted, difficult and star making performance from Hailee Steinfeld and it is also one of the very best films that I have seen so far in 2016. Wizards, animated features and other big budgeted features are certainly all dancing around vying for your precious attention and dollars but do trust me, dear readers, when I try my best to point you in the direction of something truly special. "The Edge Of Seventeen" is indeed that special.

"The Edge Of Seventeen" stars Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a high school Junior caught in the seemingly bottomless depths of teen angst, social awkwardness and armed with petulant fury against the world, most specifically her Mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), with whom she has warred against since childhood, and her all-star, exceedingly popular and universally beloved older brother Darian (Blake Jenner).

When Nadine's best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) inexplicably and unexpectedly becomes romantically involved with Darian, Nadine falls into a rage filled emotional tailspin feeling more alone and unloved in the universe than ever. Yet, will the reluctant aid from her acerbic History teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and the honest attention from her admirer Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) an equally awkward classmate be able to break through her possibly impenetrable veneer?

Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" exists as a film without a definitive story or plotline, and in this case to a powerful degree. Craig has devised a "slice-of-life" experience a character study of an emerging young woman attempting to make sense of a world she feels is entirely out of step with how she views it. What I adored so very much within this particular character study is that Craig was wholly unafraid to allow Nadine to become a completely unlikeable figure to regard, and even for long stretches during the the film. What she wisely understood with this conception is that it was unnecessary to have a heroine that one could always view as virtuous, therefore someone to root for, so to speak.

Try to imagine if you will John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" told completely from the perspective his his embittered sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey). Or how about Hughes' "Uncle Buck" (1989) as told entirely from the perspective of the enraged Tia Russell (Jean Louisa Kelly). With those descriptions, I feel that you can gather precisely which sort of cloth the character of Nadine is cut from, and it is indeed one that possesses quite the bite, brutal sarcasm and flat out vengeful meanness that serves as Nadine's protective shield as well as propels all who cross her from her path, threatening to make her the sole architect of her own misery--a quality of which Craig is most perceptive and critical.

As with Jason Reitman's pitch black "Young Adult" (2011), what Craig has accomplished brilliantly was to conceive of a character, in all three dimensions, warts and all, and allow the overall humanity of the piece to extend itself to whatever empathy we may hold towards Nadine. We do not necessarily need to like her. We just need to understand her. If we feel the need to throttle her, then so be it. If we feel the need to embrace her in order to tell her that while this time feels endless, it will not last forever, then so be it. And what Craig achieves so richly and beautifully are those very sentiments and so much more for all of us in the audience to feel simultaneously, making for a film that is undeniably tougher and pricklier than Hughes' more populist, fantastical odes to adolescence.

This specific quality of "The Edge Of Seventeen" also fuels the comedy and drama trust into Nadine's tentative and tension filled relationship with Mr. Bruner, who clearly gives it as good as Nadine dishes it out, making this one authority figure one that Nadine feels somewhat secure with, for why else would she intrude upon the solitude of Bruner's classroom lunchtimes on a daily basis and for that matter, why else does Bruner simply not throw her out of the door and into the hell of the high school hallways?  Never fear, dear readers, there is no implied attraction within this particular relationship. Woody Harrelson impresses greatly by depicting a teacher who indeed cares for Nadine's ultimate well being but definitely attempts to keep her at arms length as he conveys that wise and weary adult perspective that Nadine, by nature of her age, could not possibly attain just yet.

But, tremendous praise must be heaped profusely upon Hailee Steinfeld, who at last fulfills the promise of her talents as we witnessed in her stellar film debut as she more than held her own with a veritable command of stature and language in Joel and Ethan Coen's "True Grit" (2010). Steinfeld delivers a multi-layered performance of such humor, depth, perceptiveness, nuance, heart and soul as she brings Nadine to vivid life in all of her confusion, hurt, incredulity, and unfiltered wrath whether misguided, self-righteous or steeped completely in a truthful blend of existing as a perpetual misfit with emotional wounds both painfully real as well as wrongfully perceived.

Each relationship Nadine possess within "The Edge Of Seventeen," with her brother, Mother, best friend, Erwin, a longtime crush in Nick (Alexander Calvert) and even her Father (Eric Keenleyside), could all exist as individual films in and of themselves. Yet with the open hearted fearlessness of her performance coupled with Craig's excellent writing and direction, Hailee Steinfeld creates a character of great intelligence, wit and even compassion, especially when she is behaving at her absolute worst, and even dangerously self-obsessed as she is so consumed with her own troubles, she is unable to view the tribulations of everyone else around her. It is a remarkable balancing act and Hailee Steinfeld has proven without a doubt that she is equal to every single moment that has been given to her to portray this unique character.

Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" is a beautifully insightful, entertaining and artful exploration into that specific time of life that often and painfully feels that it will have no conclusion. Where nobody could possibly understand you especially when you are even straining to understand yourself. It again showcases that teenagers are fully deserving of cinematic material that completely honors the lives in which they live and are trying to navigate themselves through and for adult audiences, "The Edge Of Seventeen" may work as a sharp, acerbic reminder that those years of adolescence were not prances through a field of posies but so often fraught with those hard moments, experiences and questions that would help to build you into the adults you would eventually become.

Filled with equal parts honest laughs and at times, wrenching drama, Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" has more than fully earned its highest marks.

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