The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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****

What I like most about The Edge of Seventeen, Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut, is that it gives us a very realistic protagonist in the form of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). She is a 17-year-old who feels like she doesn’t fit in and acts accordingly. The viewer understands why people avoid her because her form of communication, usually sarcasm, can be grating at times. Also, like most teenagers, she feels she is the only one who suffers and feels pain. This limits her ability to see the commonality in those around her. The film avoids the usual pitfall of similar teenage angst stories where the protagonist seems like a really likeable person who would fit in in normal circumstances but is thrown, against their will, amongst evil people who mistreat them. In The Edge of Seventeen, it is much more – a mix of Nadine’s personality, how that combines with the personalities of those around her and the experiences she has been through.

Whilst there are some genre tropes such as the budding boyfriend she doesn’t realise is there and the fairy tale ending, there is a lot of depth packed into the first three quarters of the film. We simultaneously see the world from Nadine’s perspective and the world’s perspective of Nadine. This is achieved through rich characterisation of supporting characters. Her brother Darian (played by Blake Jenner) is the person Nadine compares herself with constantly. He is handsome and seems to fit into every situation with aplomb, a characteristic Nadine craves. Her mother Mona (played by Kyra Sedgwick) appears to be her main outlet of angst. They are constantly clashing even though there is a lot of ground for commonality. The passing of Nadine’s father has left Mona with the same void of acceptance, however, she is more empathetic about life even if it is tinged in pessimism, noting “Everyone is as miserable as I am. They’re just better at pretending.”

Mr Bruner (played by Woody Harrelson), one of Nadine’s teachers, is our foil in dealing appropriately with Nadine. He is similarly versed in sarcasm and is able to astutely tell the difference between teenage exaggeration and real emotional fragility. The scenes they share are often the funniest and Harrelson and Steinfeld have a really great chemistry. There is also Erwin (played by Hayden Szeto), a classmate of Nadine’s who is interested in her. He is similarly awkward and somewhat of an outsider but Nadine is too self-absorbed to realise the reason for his attention and their similarities. Krista, Nadine’s best friend (played by Haley Lu Richardson) is the only character that isn’t served by the screenplay. She is quickly shifted aside with little emotional weight given to her story arc.

These generally rich characterisations are what invests us in the film. We recognise the characters as real people, not two dimensional plot servers. This, coupled with familiar events (liking someone but fearing rejection; family arguments and more) and contemporary conundrums (such as accidentally sending a regrettable Facebook message) allows the film to be fresh and insightful, resonating with all those who ever felt like they didn’t fit in.

This is why the ending is such a let-down and stops The Edge of Seventeen from being a great film. It becomes every other story where the protagonist has an overnight revelation and immediately turns everything around. Nadine, after some inspiring words from Darian, sees things in a different manner and accepts who she is and those around her, leading her to the realisation that Erwin likes her for who she is. This is too convenient for me and goes against the realistic nature of what we have seen previously. The ability to accept ourselves and environment isn’t the result of magical words spoken. It takes time. A lot of it, in most cases. Whilst the film is no doubt suggesting hope to those who feel like they are in Nadine’s situation, making the ending so typically Hollywood does a huge disservice to the genuineness of the beginning and middle. It’s so crass that Nadine is even seen riding a bright yellow bike to go along with her bright, happy new disposition. Ultimately, the ending is unintentionally cynical in that it offers only the most unrealistic chance of hope.

Even with this ending, The Edge of Seventeen highlights Kelly Fremon Craig’s ability to write strong characters and her delivery behind the camera is enough for me to be looking forward to her next film, whatever that may be.

 

 

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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***1/2

Manchester by the Sea, a film about an emotionally reclusive man coming to terms with the death of his brother and being named guardian of his nephew, doesn’t feel that fresh. The mechanics of the story are well worn and there is nothing ground-breaking presented. However, Kenneth Lonergan should be commended on not giving the characters unrealistic turnarounds or showering the audience in fairy tale catharsis, but rather allowing gradual change and small progress to be made.

This is Lee Chandler’s (played by Casey Affleck) story, a man with a guilty conscience, whose life has been completely flipped around by one harrowing event. We learn this in a series of flashbacks as we progress through the timeline of Lee’s brother’s death. This death has resulted in Lee being named guardian of his nephew, Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges). It is in coming to terms with this that we see Lee progress as a person, but not too far as he still can’t shift the guilt he feels as a result of that one event in the past.

We find that Lee is quick in response and anger, a result of the weight of the past indiscretion and too much drinking, a solace that brings no joy or healing. The responsibility of guardianship seems to pull Lee towards a path that might eventually lead him out of the darkness he has fallen into. The expertise in not giving him a complete life turn around allows the film to resonate more realistically.

The acting is commendable with some standouts. I am not in agreement with most people and don’t think Casey Affleck’s performance is amazing. It is solid but it doesn’t feel like a tour de force. I thought Lucas Hedges was wonderful as a son dealing with his father’s death in a teenage-like manner, on the surface seemingly unaffected but hurting once the veneer is pulled away. The standout is Michelle Williams who has very limited screen time but brings real emotional gravity to every scene, something that Affleck misses mostly. Her main scene is the emotional peak of the film and it is entirely carried by her.

There is some nice imagery that plays out throughout the film with a recurring motif of fishing and the water, which represents Lee’s brother’s legacy in a way. It is a small battle over a boat between Lee and Patrick that pits sentimentality and practicality against one another, with sentimentality ultimately winning. It is a pleasing moment in a film with, intentionally, very few.