The Edge of Seventeen captures the spirit of classic John Hughes comedies – at the same time, refining and innovating Hughes’ storytelling approach.
Life has never exactly been easy for Nadine, even as a child in grade school. Throughout all the trials and tribulations of adolescence (as well as a personal tragedy that shakes her and her family to their core), Nadine manages to handle everything that life throws her way – thanks to her having her best and only close friend, Krista by her side. As juniors at Lakewood High School, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) navigate through the day to day awkwardness of their lives by focusing on things like Nadine’s crush Nick (Alexander Calvert) – and, in Nadine’s case, being a thorn in her history teacher Mr. Bruner’s (Woody Harrelson) side.
Everything changes when, through a turn of events, Krista not only becomes romantically involved with Nadine’s older and accomplished brother Darian (Blake Jenner), but starts dating him and is pulled into his social circle. Upset, angry and left feeling like her life is spiraling out of control, Nadine lashes out at those closest to her – including her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), who already has problems on her plate to deal with – even as she sinks deeper into loneliness. Despite the comfort of an unexpected friendship and affections from her sweetly-awkward peer Erwin (Hayden Szeto), Nadine is still left wondering: is her life ever going to get any easier?
Grounded, yet quirky coming of age comedy/dramas about high schoolers were all the rage in the 1980s and ’90s, but their ranks have diminished in the years since then – with noteworthy exceptions, such as Easy A, Juno and The Duff. Kelly Fremon Craig makes her directorial debut with The Edge of Seventeen, a fresh addition to that sub-genre and easily one of the better films yet made about the struggles of being a teenager in the 21st century. The Edge of Seventeen captures the spirit of classic John Hughes comedies – at the same time, refining and innovating Hughes’ storytelling approach.
The Edge of Seventeen script by Craig (who previously wrote the Alexis Bledel-led 2009 film Post Grad) includes many of the staple tropes found in Hughes’ films, as well as those of Hughes’ imitators; including, storytelling devices such as having the protagonist narrate in voiceover and character types like the wise-cracking teacher/mentor. What sets Edge of Seventeen apart is that Craig approaches these cliches from a fresh perspective, tapping into the messiness of your average teenager’s psychological outlook (in this case, a young woman weighed down with extra emotional baggage) in a humorous, yet insightful and observant manner. Edge of Seventeen is more My So-Called Life and less Easy A in this respect, as the film’s main character – and her peers – are indeed as emotionally aloof and vulnerable, yet lacking in self-awareness, as teenagers tend to be in the real world.
Hailee Steinfeld broke out as a teen actor with her Oscar-nominated turn in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit and is the beating heart of Edge of Seventeen, delivering a performance here that is as strong as (if not in some ways better than) her previous work. Nadine is the rare female protagonist allowed room to be genuinely awkward and insensitive in a realistic manner, in addition to being off-beat in her own way. Steinfeld commits fully to this role and makes Nadine a delightful protagonist to follow on this journey – in many ways, because of how often she puts her foot in her mouth and/or fashions herself to be savvier than she really is. Craig writes the character exceptionally well too; something that extends to all of the characters in her Edge of Seventeen screenplay, at that.
The script’s sense of authenticity extends to how The Edge of Seventeen actually looks too, with the cinematography by Doug Emmett (Togetherness) embracing a toned-down color grading scheme and visual style that resembles one of John Hughes’ high school movies. Craig has a knack for crafting subtle visual gags too, as well as a sense of space and the importance of location; restricting Nadine’s story to the confines of high school classrooms, hallways and fast food joints that teens can actually afford to eat at. This allows The Edge of Seventeen to capture the sense of isolation and obliviousness to the world around them that teenagers experience, pulling the audience deeper into the mindset of the film’s characters – but leaving enough room to still laugh at their (frequently) over the top dramatic behavior.
If The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t necessarily break the mold with its supporting characters, it does breathe fresh life into familiar archetypes. Adult costars Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick are, respectively, the snarky mentor-figure and the well-meaning but misguided parent in the film’s high school comedy/drama formula – but thanks to a combination of their performances and Craig’s writing, their characters prove to be more three-dimensional than might be apparent at first glance. Blake Jenner and Haley Lu Richardson as Nadine’s brother and best friend are imbued with similar depth, but the true standout of the movie’s supporting crew is easily Hayden Szeto. As Nadine’s caring but hopelessly awkward and nerdy would-be love interest, Szeto has a wonderfully ador(k)able screen presence that make him easy to root for and allows him to nearly-steal many of the scenes that he appears in.
The Edge of Seventeen is one high school coming of age story that properly taps into the zeitgeist (in ways that go beyond referencing modern conveniences such as texting, social media and dating websites) – serving up humor, heart and charm in hefty portions. It further cements Steinfeld’s standing as a great young acting talent and establishes Craig as a writer/director whose voice shines though, even while she’s keeping to a tried and true storytelling tradition. If the current generation of high schoolers could use an excellent coming of age tale to call their own, then The Edge of Seventeen meets that demand nicely.
The Edge of Seventeen is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 102 minutes long and is Rated R for sexual content, language and some drinking.
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