***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(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 (nor should they) but, when applied, they’re generally apt. For the few that are, writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen may deserve it the most.

There’s a lot of things that Hughes did and tapped into that other filmmakers have since utilized effectively in their own high school dramedies. Primary among them: to actually take teens seriously. (Also: Hughes’s ear for soundtracks, a value that 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, came from a very specific place, and even from a very specific person. Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut feature comes from those places, too. That’s what makes it resonate. That’s what makes it special.

The Edge of Seventeen is more the HBO version of a High School Teen Movie and less the kind you’d catch on Nickelodeon or Freeform. It applies a Rated R frankness to its approach (one 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 promise she showed in the Coen BrothersTrue 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. the type who has to be told by more than one person to stop talking; it actually becomes kind of thing.

I won’t belabor the reasons why she is 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, that 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. School snobs, jerks, or bullies are not to blame, nor is “Jake” showing up at the end in his red Porsche to sweep her off her feet (am I right, girlfriends?).  In The Edge of Seventeen, it’s actually the heroine who needs the comeuppance.

Craig creates a superb ensemble of characters around Nadine and then casts them perfectly. She also 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 genuine humanity. As the droll teacher, Woody Harrelson has rarely been better (or so endearing); he knows exactly how to puncture Nadine’s pity-parties with affectionate sarcasm. As Nadine’s mother, Kyra Sedgwick crafts a moving arc of her own as a woman who has some painful growing of her own to do (and boy, 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.

Eventually, Nadine does reach a vital level of self-awareness (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 ding that as being too on the nose, but given who that character is – and, more importantly, given the young girls who will identify with Nadine 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, inspiring them to take some necessary personal inventory. To even consider that is a scary proposition, but this credible story helps remove the fear of doing that.

And in the end, it’s Nadine’s vulnerability and humility that’s self-empowering, not her defiance.

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