The Edge of Seventeen

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THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, from left: Hailee Steinfeld, Hayden Szeto, 2016. ph: Murray Close /© STX Entertainment /Courtesy Everett Collection

Remember how, back in the day, you’d be watching your favourite VHS tape full of music videos (or a favourite television show or movie) when suddenly the screen and sound would twist, a marathon of lines would work their way down the screen, and white snow would lead into the most unwelcome of surprises – a new offering that someone had taped over your show?

That’s the life of a teenager right there.

One minute you’re in a happy, high-spirited Bon Jovi music video the next you’re living the tail end of a “Degrassi” episode.

I was shaking, swearing, fists twitching and ready to swing, and yet I couldn’t move forward. I stood there, frozen, like a deer in the headlights – or in this case, a boy facing a monster, at long last, by a dusty road with only the moonlight to show me my footing. As this damaged ogre, fueled by his own demons and ostensible dislike for teenagers, approached – heaving like a bull ready to attack – I lunged, a belt to his bearded face, an elbow to his ribs. This had gone on far too long.  His anger increased, a combination of shock and surprise, that this “smart ass” teenager he’d once volunteered to play step father to, was finally fighting back. He’d won the first three rounds, pummeling and abusing two small kids over several years, and it had all come to a head. The lid was off the jar. Even if the fourth round ended with a young kid, with a soft, breaking voice, lying helplessly on the side of a road, he sure wasn’t going to get to that point without letting this person know his life was more broken and more beyond repair than mine would ever be. All I needed were the words, the strength and the spunk to get a couple of knocks in before he fell and that would be a victory – one that would be push him beyond this point. In one minute, the fear, the vulnerability and the stillness was gone.  It was a Dito Montiel moment. The type of real-life moment you’d see emulated in film after film for years to come and one that would shape the teenager I was to become.

She moved in closer. And closer. And closer. She wanted my hand. Her soft, clearly moisturized digits caressing my hand as our legs slowly interlocked beneath the theater seats. To a teenage boy, nothing would be more exciting than the latest “Die Hard” movie — or so I thought before the dream girl confessed her feelings for me at school, begging me to take her on a movie date that weekend. Bruce Willis’s antics blurred on the screen beyond us as I gently touched her face, letting her know that my lips were going to follow. A lax, gentle kiss, not fuelled with passion but something purer, more cleared, played out in the back row of the cinema. The delicate embrace of bottom lips unlocking, the sweet, satisfied smile she offered as she blushingly looked up, the constricted grip she had on my hand as the moment firecrackered around us. And then again, a surprise return visit to her lips, and neck, with our tongues touching, swirling, and goosebumps spurring. It was a moment. A magical moment. It was tender, innocent and powerful – the first of many, but a first all the same. We both wanted to be there. And after I walked her home, getting in an extra kiss in her doorway before parting ways, I felt a tornado of veracious, celebrated energy. I dashed home like a marathon runner, grinning and smirking like Han Solo after taking down a corridor of storm troopers, pleased that Id taken the chance as much as I had discovered a new feeling. There wasn’t a leaf untouched as I dashed through the neighbourhood home that night. It was a Bon Jovi music video moment.

Sometimes concurrent feelings are so disparate that they result in something ultimately shambolic and mystifying.

She was smiling at me again. What was this about? She shouldn’t be looking at me that way; she should be looking at her boyfriend — my friend. But there she was again, staring fondly at me, as if she’d only now just realized she didn’t want the more rambunctious of the group but the quiet achiever of the pack, the one who’d given her a couple of laughs earlier that evening by singing to the girls. “You’re Funny”, she’d say. “you’re so sweet” she offered. I knew she was looking for her moment to let me know her feelings were amplifying for me. First opportunity away from her boyfriend and she let it known – she wanted me because I was the nicest boy she’d ever met, and never had as much fun with him as she had with me (in the school yard, of course). And it’s then that she moved in closer to me on the sofa. Feeling scratchy with the situation, and anticipating her next move, I gave her an innocent tickle – believing it would make her laugh so hard she’d end up on the floor, away from me for a bit. And it worked. She giggled uncontrollably, fell to the floor, and stayed there until she’d got the giggles out of her system. As much as I desired this cute vixen, I just didn’t feel right. It was his birthday, after all, the last thing I was going to do was get cosy with his girlfriend at his own party. As far as I was concerned, there was only one thing I could do – encourage the rest of our friends to jump up on the couch with us to watch a scary movie before she could jump back up and push herself up against me on it. Phew! I’d never have to face such a challenge again.. not until a week or two later when, at the school swimming day, I caved into her crush.  I was sitting behind a tree, listening to music on my headphones, a few friends around me, when she came up from behind me and asked if she could sit down. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, telling him she had fallen for someone else, and wanted to tell me the news. Ten minutes later, she was holding my hand. And all I could think of was.. what had I done? We’d talk all night on the phone, hours and hours of laughing and gossiping, over the coming weeks – and I’d still feel guilt. If I could find my diary right now, you’d spot an entry in which I recite kissing her up against the wall of my bedroom, hands rummaging and young bodies excitedly twerking in the moment, when I suddenly stopped and told her “I can’t do this.” I didn’t want anyone to suffer here. Full circle moment.

The unanticipated, sometimes unsolicited and often exhausting series of chops and changes seems to go hand in hand with the voice deepening and pants tightening. It’s as much to do with one’s environs, as it is the age, with all four seasons hitting our calendar on any given day – usually the moment “Transformers” suddenly starts being uncool. Joy, fear, anger, sadness, satisfied, uncertain, nervous, you can have them all at a drop of a baseball cap – one scoop or two? One minute you’re flushed with anger, staring down a bully, the next moment you’re sick from guilt because of an extra douse of sympathy going round that month. And soon enough, it all changes again and you’re feeling hot and adored, content and sanguine, as the object of your affection makes it known she feels the same way by putting her lips on yours.

That’s “Edge of Seventeen” – a study of the various emotions we feel as a teenager and how, despite how tough it all seems at the time, we get through it.

Hailee Steinfeld is whip-smart, sad-sack high school junior Nadine. She’s never liked school, never held much self-esteem, struggled to find her smile after her father passed away a couple of years prior, and has all but one friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) to keep her going.

edge-of-seventeenWhen Krista starts dating Nadine’s popular all-star brother (Blake Jenner of Richard Linklater’s “Everyone Wants Some”), she starts to feel more alone than ever. Now she’s had to turn to one of her (very-accommodating) teachers, played by Woody Harrelson, to get through. That is, until the most unexpected of turnaround packages arrives in the form of a thoughtful, compassionate fellow student (Hayden Szeto), who spends his off-time making animated movies, slowly lets Nadia know she isn’t alone and does belong somewhere – even if it’s the last place she suspected.

A smart, sometimes nostalgic comedy with killer performances by Steinfeld (the actress who got her start in the bravura “True Grit” remake a couple of years back and is now currently riding atop of the pop charts with her catchy single ‘Starving’ ) and the always-dependable Harrelson, in one of his most likeable and suitably-submissive performances in years, “Edge of Seventeen” succeeds largely because of it’s on and off camera talent.

Kelly Fremon Craig’s screenplay doesn’t offer much new in the way of a story – it’s essentially “Pretty in Pink” by way of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” – but what his cast do with his words, and the way Craig interjects Nadia’s moment of self-awareness into the third act, is nicely done. Furthermore, it’s nice to see a teen film that encompasses a sweet sensitivity young adults usually only get to see on the small screen these days.