Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: "The Edge of Seventeen"

We see a lot of teenagers in the movies, but it’s almost always an ersatz version. They’re much smarter, braver, more beautiful and interesting than real teens. Not to mention, they’re generally played by actors ranging from mid-20s up to nearly AARP.

The last time I spotted a zit on the face of a movie teen, I considered it a major triumph.

Audiences are used to the chicanery and understand they’re watching Hollywood Teens, not any honest attempt to depict the real thing. That is what it is, but it does create an emotional disconnect from the people we’re watching.

“The Edge of Seventeen” is a keener and truer take on teendom than we’ve seen in a while.

Hailee Steinfeld -- actually a teenager -- plays Lakewood High School junior Nadine, who has but one friend in the world and trouble connecting to anybody else. Her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is frazzled and harried, and older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is handsome, popular and wants nothing to do with Nadine.

Nadine likes to wear weird clothes, trade insults with her burnt-out history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and fantasize about hooking up with local bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), whom she’s never even spoken to. She’s dorky, clever, wickedly funny and rather glorious. But she sees herself as awkward and unloved, and that’s a hard feeling to shake.

Things go from bad to worse when her best (really, only) friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), hooks up with brother Darian at a party. After an appropriate freak-out period, she’s willing to abide the episode as a one-off -- but then Darian and Krista decide to make it a permanent thing.

Seeing this as the ultimate betrayal, Nadine launches herself into a vortex of loneliness and increasingly bad behavior. She sees herself as an outcast who’s grown content with her small, stable patch of emotional turf. When that’s yanked away, Nadine feels homeless and alone.

Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, “Seventeen” is narratively unstructured and messy, but it’s also dashingly original and full of juice. The characters behave in a way that’s consistent with their impulses rather than just to further the plot down the road.

Steinfeld is astonishingly frank and vulnerable as Nadine in a way that recalls Molly Ringwald’s better movies with John Hughes. There’s one scene where she’s peeing in a public restroom and suddenly looks up and asks God why he never gave her a break. It’s played for laughs, but also has unexpected poignancy.

Nadine’s relationship with Mr. Bruner also goes sideways from what we expect. Normally a caustic mentor type slowly warms to the youngster, but Harrelson always looks like he’d rather leave the room than bestow advice. Nadine berates him as a balding, lonely loser, and even goes so far as to offer the clichéd outcome herself: “You should date my mother!” But the movie keeps us guessing about him.

I also really liked Hayden Szeto as Erwin, a nerdy kid from school who has a huge crush on Nadine, but tries to play it off as coolly as he can – which is to say, not very much. He’s in many ways Nadine’s perfect male counterpart, trying to fake his way to social status and not fooling anyone. Like her, all he needs is to slow down, do what comes natural and don’t worry about the consequences.

You can pretty much say the same thing about teenager movies in general. Just allow the kids be kids … and maybe let them have a few pimples, too.

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