In past years the Toronto International Film Festival has tended to end with a whimper, not a bang, in terms of its closing night film gala. Most of the out of town entertainment press and bloggers are gone and the air is out of the balloon. So when the festival announced that its closing film this year would be STX’s The Edge Of Seventeen, written and directed by first-time helmer Kelly Fremon Craig, it was largely dismissed as ‘Oh, well TIFF is ending with a teen comedy.’ But once you see this wonderful, human, funny and very real movie that lazy label goes out the window and you realize that Toronto’s brain trust is slyer than a fox. The fest is not only closing with a very good film, but closing with one of the best movies in the entire line-up (which counts several Oscar contenders among its premieres).
There should have been a clue to the quality of this movie from the fact that it is produced by James L. Brooks, the multi-Oscar winning writer/director/producer of landmark films like Terms Of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, producer of movies like Jerry Maguire, Say Anything and Big, as well as the creative force behind such TV hits as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Lou Grant and The Simpsons to name just a few of his credits. There was also that very big response the film got from theatre owners at Cinemacon in April when STX previewed scenes from it as part of their presentation, and another clue came when STX moved it from September 30 to the heart of the uber competitive holiday season on November 18.
But actually it is always the movie that speaks for itself and this one does that handily thanks to sharp writing and direction from Craig as well as a perfectly chosen cast led by a luminous Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine, a uniquely original teen girl whose world is rocked when she discovers her beloved brother is hooked up with her best friend, just as she pursues a good-looking but shallow guy on campus for herself. Just don’t call it a “teen film.” In a joint interview earlier this week at the Park Hyatt in Toronto I spoke with Brooks and Craig and that point became abundantly clear. “The one thing we were doing of course was beating back any thought of genre. It was never genre to us, never a teen movie to us. We’d be struck dead if anybody thinks so. That was not our intention. It was just to realize this script, this specific script about this specific character that caught a time, ” Brooks said of the screenplay which Craig wrote as a spec script and threw a Hail Mary pass getting it into the hands of Gracie Films, Brooks’ production company.
Brooks said he liked the first draft, but that its development was an evolution. When the second draft came in he said it was a revelation. “I think it was an important new voice and an original character, and we kept going. Never in my life had I seen somebody emerging between drafts like that. Never.” He added that Steinfeld’s performance is so seamless that he fears it won’t be appreciated.
He shouldn’t worry about that. You can add her name to the increasingly long list of Best Actress contenders this year from Golden Globes to Oscars, especially if Academy actors branch voters can get over their snob factor about films that just happen to be about teens and set in high school. Craig says they looked at over a thousand actresses for the role, but once they saw Steinfeld, a past Oscar nominee for the 2010 Coen Bros remake of True Grit, she was the one.
“She just had to be so many things that were antithetical in a lot of ways. Really tough, but also really fragile, and be able to completely nail the comedy but also slay you with how vulnerable and insecure and how much pain she’s in. And the thing that just amazed me is she could do that on a dime. She could go from a funny moment to a moment that just killed me. She was making things alive in a way that I just felt like I’m constantly witnessing something miraculous,” said the writer/director, who emphasized that none of the story points were autobiographical.
Craig did, however, spend six months interviewing teens, and hung out at high schools, sitting with girls for hours in person or on the phone, encounters that turned into kind of weird therapy sessions. “It just made me want to pay respect to how complicated it is, this age, and not treat it the way that I think it’s treated often, which is that it’s just painted with a real wide brush.”
The film is perfectly cast with Haley Lu Richardson as her BFF, Blake Jenner as her brother who can do no wrong, scene stealer Hayden Szeto as the Asian American kid who pines for her, and Kyra Sedgwick as her mother. Co-star Woody Harrelson, who plays her key teacher, confidante and booster, gives high marks to Steinfeld and the movie. “Hailee is amazing, freakin’ amazing. I mean I knew she would be good just from seeing True Grit and so forth, but she’s a jewel,” he told me during a recent interview about his other Toronto premiere LBJ. The truth is, despite a longtime friendship with Brooks, Harrelson was skeptical at first, thinking Edge was just a teen film project in the vein of a John Hughes movie, and didn’t know what he would be doing in it.
Brooks persevered and got him to take a walk with Craig, and Harrelson was convinced. Brooks also told him that only 1.8% of directors in Hollywood are female. “By the way, I’ve had incredible experiences with female directors. I was really glad I did this one, because it is fantastic. Jim Brooks will never take credit himself. He always gives it to Kelly, who did a great job, but Jim worked tirelessly with a kind of unbelievable attention to detail and perfectionism that makes great art,” he told me.
Craig said at first the thought of working with a master like Brooks was “terrifying,” but she soon realized that nobody is more committed to capturing the truth of a piece. “He would say ‘are we getting these details right? Are we being as honest as we can?’ I think that was really cool that it became two people really looking at a project and letting that be the master, and serving that, and both going nuts about trying to get it right. It was really cool to do that together, to do that next to somebody you have admired for so long,” she said.
Brooks laid it all on the work: “The mantra is, the movie’s the boss. We all serve the movie. We all give everything we can to the movie. And that’s the way it was, and one of the most amazing growth curves I’ve ever seen in terms of Kelly becoming a director.” He said he couldn’t really recall a single conversation about Craig becoming director, it just happened organically.
Said Craig: “There was a conversation. It was the first time we met and I really wanted to direct it, and I knew someday I was going to make a pitch for myself. And we sat down and he said, ‘I think the voice is really specific to you, so I think you should direct it’. And I remember being so shocked and then thinking, could you put that in writing?” she laughed.
Brooks said he was on set 90% of the time, but it wasn’t to shadow his director. “It was being in the ditch while somebody directed, being in the same ditch. And it was very active. It was always a labor of love…there wasn’t a cynical element anyplace.” STX , whose original business model was to make the mid-range movies the major studios don’t touch these days, financed it but Brooks said the budget was below mid-range.
“They broke their business model for us and told us that in our first meeting: ‘We’re breaking our business model because of our reaction to the script’, which was great to hear,” he said mentioning that despite very high research test scores, even with men ( it is in fact, company sources say, the highest testing movie ever for Gracie Films), STX allowed the filmmakers to go back to Vancouver and shoot a new ending that the filmmakers hoped would be “less ambiguous” even though they didn’t know what that would be at the time, and the film was already getting high numbers as it was. It is no spoiler alert to say what they got with a key shot is worth a thousand words. Credit to STX for being a filmmaker-friendly company in that way.
The results will be on display Saturday night as TIFF 2016 comes to a close. It’s understandable that Craig has never been to the Toronto fest before, but surprising that this is also the veteran Brooks’ first visit as well. “This year everybody’s talking about so many good movies, and we’ve been working so haven’t had a chance to see them. But we’re going to plunge in here. I’ve never heard of so many different movies where somebody says I had to see it,” he said.
One of those movies he has seen. The Edge Of Seventeen is another feather in the cap for this year’s Toronto festival, and a great way to close it.