A Troubled Teen Turns 15 in The Edge of Everything

Photo: courtesy Lightyear Entertainment.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, 21st-century cinephiles have it pretty good. Sure, maybe theatrical distribution has stalled. But boutique physical media distributors like Arrow, Criterion, and Film Masters press on with remasters and rereleases from the art form’s rich history. Popular streaming services, for all their faults, provide instant gratification for thousands of catalog titles, and others like Kanopy, Film Movement Plus, and Kino Now fill crucial gaps. Indie films navigate their way to the hundreds of festivals, resuscitated since COVID, charting lives at the boundaries and margins. There was a time a scant few decades ago when a feisty teen coming-of-age drama like The Edge of Everything could scarcely get made, much less seen; today it’s a festival hit and bound, this week, for a wide streaming and VOD release, well deserved in the wake of its acclaim as the winner of the Panavision Award for Independent Cinema at the 2024 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Think back, say, to an instructive film like Nancy Savoca’s 1991 Dogfight, a delightful coming-of-age drama featuring a stellar performance from Lili Taylor, made for Warner Bros. Studio execs couldn’t even process how to market a quiet drama about a shy teen girl with a fierce anti-war attitude, so they tried to muddle with the ending, market the film as a comedy (it ain’t), and quickly consigned it to a quiet death in the theaters. Earnest films about girlhood, to their thinking (or lack thereof), simply didn’t exist. The Edge of Everything—and every film like it—owes a debt to the Nancy Savocas of prior generations of filmmakers who fought for their protagonists and their visions.

Abby (SIerra McCormick) looks pensively out the window.
Sierra McCormick as Abby in The Edge of Everything. Photo: courtesy Lightyear Entertainment.

The Edge of Everything is nothing if not earnest. Abby (Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night) is 14 and grieving her divorced mother’s death by replaying her mundane voicemails. Her father David (Jason Butler Harner, Ozark) lives with his younger girlfriend Leslie (Sabina Friedman-Seitz) when Abby moves in with the two of them: Abby’s strained relationship with her father is made worse when she and Leslie lock horns. Angry, grieving, and anxious, Abby feels unwelcome in her new home and adrift at school. She has a supportive group of friends, but they’re a bit taken aback by Abby’s increasingly rebellious attitude.

As her 15th birthday approaches, Abby meets a new friend, Caroline (Ryan Simpkins), a fearless streaked-blond street punk whose hard drinking, sexual bravado, and drug use open up a portal to a new world. Suddenly, to Abby, her drama classes, pet goldfish, and innocent friend group seem deadly dull; day drinking, flirting with older boys, pranking and shoplifting, and starting to experiment with drugs seem like an alternative outlet for her adolescent angst. All of these conflicts mount on Abby’s 15th birthday party when her school friends and Caroline venture out into the streets for a night of drinking, drug use, sex, and maybe more that causes dad David untold worry about her whereabouts and safety. What begins as innocent hijinks has the potential to end in tragedy.

Los Angeles-based writer-directors Sophia Sabella and Pablo Feldman know Abby’s world well and chart her character arc with sensitivity and tact. The Mill Valley locale features beautiful architecture surrounded by untouched beaches and lush greenery, but its residents’ affluence and privilege combine too often to make adolescence an exercise in ennui and anxiety. Everything about Abby’s grief and isolation feels palpably real, conveyed with verité-style cinematography (from Scott Ray), naturalistic editing (Benjamin Shearn), and a pitch-perfect soundtrack.

Caroline lights Abbygs cigarette.
Ryan Simpkins (L) and Sierra McCormick in The Edge of Everything. Photo: courtesy Lightyear Entertainment.

Every member of the cast does credible work. As the street-smart but soft-hearted toughie Caroline, Ryan Simpkins lights up the screen when her character comes into play, jumpstarting the sometimes-stolid narrative with a spark of energy. (Her story would make for an equally, if not even more so, fascinating character arc.) It’s McCormick, though, who is onscreen the most. She’s an adept performer, able to portray her character’s angst and isolation well. She does not look 15 (or 14, which her character is for the film’s first two acts)—the actress is 26—though that is a concern faced by every teen drama: does one cast for experience and ability or take a chance and cast more instead for age appropriateness?

One can’t fault McCormick by any stretch, as hers is a perfectly adept, grounded, and convincing performance. It might be even more affective had the script offered Abby’s character just a bit more depth. Her primary traits are that she is grieving and immature. She has a friend group, whom she does not treat too well, and a pet goldfish. And lots of teenage angst. But not a great deal more in terms of wants, desires, or traits. Were her character even a little more rounded by, say, a passion of some sort—a promising subplot with her drama class, a fellow smitten student, and a troubled teacher goes sadly unexplored—her character would be significantly more interesting and the film’s one-way plot more interesting.

As is, what you will hope for when watching The Edge of Everything is for tragedy to be avoided. Whether its a drug overdose, a sexual assault, maybe an unwanted pregnancy, or even simply an unhealable rift between father and daughter, one wants only for Abby to emerge from her turning-15 crisis unscathed. Sabella and Feldman get all the details right, even if their main character is interesting primarily because she is all too commonplace: a girl who feels unloved and is as a consequence at risk. As in so many like communities across the United States not just in California but all across it, behind the facade of pretty homes and privileged communities, thousands of Abbies are hurting, and The Edge of Everything gets that pain just, just right.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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