Childhood is often presented as some sort of unfettered idyll, a time of adventurous questioning and exploration unburdened the shoulder-sagging demands of adulthood.
But the reality is that for all the depictions of untroubled starry-eyed blissful innocence, that growing hard is damn sight harder than it’s often made out to be.
One film that’s happy to acknowledge the sorts of truisms that any teenager will attest to is The Edge of Seventeen, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, which gleefully and with razor sharp wit wrapped around some brilliantly-articulated hard and fast cold realities takes an axe to any idea that being a teenager is a Ferris wheel to giddy abandon.
The lead character and bitingly-sarcastic emotional centre of gravity of the film is, you guessed it, 17 year old junior high school student Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld in a gripping performance that’s equal parts comically bold and authentically vulnerable) who doesn’t particularly like herself, anyone around her or the fact that she’s stuck with herself for the rest of her life.
A loner since childhood, her only real friend is Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) who has been staunch and true since the second grade but who throws a massive spanner into Nadine’s easily-disturbed and angst-ridden works when she starts going out with Darian (Blake Jenner), Nadine’s older brother and senior high school heartthrob.
Nadine’s relationship with Darian is fractious but you get the sense there is an underlying bond between the siblings, borne of a family tragedy some four years earlier and the flaky kidult-ness of their mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) who relies too heavily on her son to cope with the sort of things most adults would take breezily in their stride.
She and Nadine, both of whom believe life is an unending misery of epic proportions – the main difference being that Nadine openly admits to it while Mona, meltdowns aside, does what most adults does and pretends it isn’t all that bad (her actions suggest otherwise) – are often at loggerheads, a process that began in childhood and one that usually only mitigated by the calming actions of Nadine’s dad (Eric Keenleyside).
As Nadine sees it life is an ordeal that must be endured, and it can only be broken up by her romantic flights of fancy about Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert), who is impossibly handsome, too cool for school and the sort of brooding douchebag that any achingly disillusioned young woman would be best to avoid.
So enamoured is Nadine with Nick, whom she hasn’t actually met – when she does, the circumstances are so direly awkward that she desperately begins to wish she hadn’t; the sound you hear is a huge, long-nurtured fantasy bubble blowing apart – that she misses, repeatedly, the adorkably awkward approaches of budding animator Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), her history classmate and would be boyfriend.
Every scene she shares with Erwin is brilliantly amusing and touching too, with both actors enjoy the sort of strong chemistry that makes their on again/off again dance to romance an absolute delight to behold. (Erwin’s verbal dances of awkwardness with Madine are one of the many delights of this wickedly clever, funny film.)
In the middle of the emotional muddled maelstrom that is Nadine’s much-loathed life stands one sane voice of reason, teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), although his utterances are often cloaked in the weary tone of someone who has seen in his 23 years of teaching and wishes he hadn’t.
Despite his palpable reluctance (although this shown to be somewhat of an act later in the film when circumstances require Nadine to call on him for help in the midst of an actual, not imagined or manufactured, crisis), he is the sole rock upon which Nadine’s often-tumultuous world rests and the source of some of the wittier, more biting exchanges in the film.
Looking at it from the point of view of adulthood, much of the narrative in The Edge of Seventeen might seem like a storm in a hormonally-charged teacup.
But the brilliance of the film is that it doesn’t at any point demean Nadine’s struggles to find her way through the messiness of teenage life to something approaching a more adult understanding of what it means to be human.
That she gets there in the end, or rather begins to get there by the final act grants the film the air of a happy ending but the reality is that Nadine has had to fight hard to get there, mostly against her own wounded ego, flawed perspectives and savagely-enacted, if hilariously witty, defense mechanisms.
You could argue that she is her own worst enemy but the truth is we all are to some degree, and some of us really never past the self-loathing and uncertainty of growing up.
For a while it looks like Nadine might not manage this either but circumstances conspire to help her realise that traumatic though much of teenage life is, that there are good many more silver linings in the grey clouds of her existence than she’s willing to admit to, or initially at least, is capable of seeing.
The Edge of Seventeen is an enormously intelligent, hilarious and heartfelt film that dares to argue, and very successfully into the bargain, that the trials and travails of teenage life matter a great deal, trivial though they may seem to adult eyes, because they are the key way we all form our ideas of who we are and how we will be and act as adults.
It’s a crucial, exhausting time of life, with no real outside references to draw on, and the film, and Hailee Steinfeld in particular, does an extraordinarily funny, insightful and engaging job of helping all of us to value how hard it is to get to a point where we hopefully like ourselves and life, which short though it might seem at times, is long enough that some accommodation, beyond simply grinning and bearing it, is needed.