***1/2 out of ****
(for sexual content, language and some drinking – all involving teens characters)
Released: November 18, 2016
Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Hayden Szeto
Ranked #18 (Honorable Mention) on My Top 10 List For 2016
Comparisons between the teen movies of today to the John Hughes classics of the 1980s don’t get thrown around a lot, necessarily, and when applied they’re generally apt. But writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen may deserve it the most.
There’s a lot of things Hughes did and tapped into that other filmmakers have imbued effectively into their own Coming Of Age high school dramedies. Primary among them: to actually take teens seriously. (And let’s face it, his ear for soundtracks and their value shouldn’t be underestimated either.)
But what made Hughes singular (then and now) goes beyond those virtues. He didn’t just understand teens and respect them; his films were personal. Deeply so, even for all their quirks (and I guess that’s part of what made them personal). They had a very specific voice and came from a very specific place, from a very specific person. Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut feature does too. That’s what makes it resonate. That’s what makes it special.
More the HBO version of the High School Movie than the one you’d catch on Nickelodeon or Freeform, The Edge of Seventeen applies a Rated R frankness to its approach (and yes that includes language, sexuality, and drinking). Every teenager may not act or talk like the ones we see here, but they sure feel like them. I know I did.
Hailee Steinfeld – who continues to live up to the huge promise she showed in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit – plays Nadine, a 16-year-old junior carrying around a lot of angst. An outsider, she’s sort of a high-strung version of Molly Ringwald. More than one person, for example, has to tell her to stop talking; it actually becomes kind of thing.
I won’t belabor the reasons why she’s this way (but yes, they do include having a Perfect Popular Older Brother), but together Steinfeld and Craig have crafted a universally relatable character that we root for, and our heart breaks for, but that isn’t always easy to like. The magic trick here is that she earns our empathy even as her issues are largely self-imposed; she’s not the victim of unfairness, meanness, or being misunderstood. In fact, others probably understand her better than she does herself, but she’s too neurotic and angry (again, empathetically so) to hear them.
Yes, life circumstances play a part, but smartly the film paints a portrait in which, ultimately, the reasons for Nadine’s angst and isolation are something she has to own, and not because of school snobs, jerks, or bullies that need their comeuppance. Plus, Jake’s not showing up in his red Porsche at the end (am I right, girlfriends?).
Craig creates a superb ensemble of characters around Nadine, casts them perfectly, and has an ear for dialogue that would make any Gilmore Girls writer jealous (I’m guessing). As the older brother, Blake Jenner plays the cute beefcake but with depth and real humanity, Woody Harrelson has rarely been better (or so endearing) as the droll teacher who knows exactly how to puncture Nadine’s pity-parties with affectionate sarcasm, and Kyra Sedgwick crafts a moving arc as Nadine’s mother who has some painful growing of her own to do (she had me rooting for her to send the right text at a defining moment). Nadine shares some genuinely sweet moments with her dad, too.
Nadine does reach a vital level of self-awareness at the end (as a result of some really stupid decisions), and basically spells that out in a late third act dump of heartfelt emotion. Some critics might reflexively ping that as too on the nose, but given who that character is – and, more importantly, given the young girls who will identify with her, and be listening to her – the film needed to have her say those things, plainly and clearly (and Steinfeld makes them real, not didactic). This could have a positive effect on a lot of teen and post-teen girls to take some necessary personal inventory, and lifts the fear of doing that.
Because in the end, it’s Nadine’s vulnerability and humility that’s self-empowering, not her defiance.