Where the hell did this movie come from?
Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. Look, teen movies are fairly cheap to make and they are about a dime a dozen these days. And for goodness’ sake, can filmmakers just get over John Hughes? I love the guy, but it’s about time they move on and actually create their own identity instead of ripping off his. I mean, how much more could you possibly mine from the same, tired white, middle-class, suburban angst that these films have used since forever?
Um…quite a bit as it turns out.
In comes The Edge of Seventeen, which is written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, her directorial debut. It follows a troubled and awkward high school student, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) as her life begins spiraling out of control after her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner).
The film does work on a familiar template, very reminiscent to the likes of John Hughes, but in addition to that influence, there is a lot of James L. Brooks. It isn’t too surprising, considering he is actually one of the producers, but it’s not hard to see what attracted him to the material. It’s film of Brooks’ DNA in John Hughes clothing, a poppy, quick-witted charmer on the surface that has underlying depths that speak to greater emotional truths.
Something The Edge of Seventeen gets that many coming-of-age films don’t seem comfortable in confronting is that some people are just straight up assholes growing up. Nadine is an asshole. Even as a child we see her causing trouble for her parents, and it only gets worse after a she is faced with a personal tragedy. It also becomes more self-destructive. Nadine is quick to push people away, despite knowing how bad she is when trying to connect with other people. She also gets into that idea of how when you’re a teenager, every little thing feels big, a simple setback can feel like the end of the world, and it feels like you’re the only one experiencing it. It deals with that in a way that is totally empathetic, but also willing to call out on the character for what she puts the people in her life through. It’s surprisingly well balanced.
The film makes a clever use of coming-of-age archetypes, providing layers of depth that is generally uncommon. Each supporting character is allowed a moment where they fully open up to Nadine and we get a glimpse at who they really are, how they’re feeling, and how they deal with their problems. And I do mean every supporting character, from Darian to Krista to Nadine’s teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) to her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), and even Erwin (Hayden Szeto), an Asian classmate that has a not-so-obvious crush on Nadine, and thankfully a far cry from reductive stereotypes like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.
Another surprise in the film is just how strong it resonates on an emotional level. There is a whole layer to this film that you can read as how a family deals in loss and grief. You can see every member of Nadine’s family recover from their tragedy in very different ways, and how their individual reactions can manifest themselves in their actions throughout the film. Loneliness is also a common motif in the film. It explores how loneliness can affect us, how it drives us, and how it can lead us to places that may not be the best for us.
At the center of this whole thing, carrying it effortlessly is Hailee Steinfeld, who is legit brilliant in the film. In fact, it is one of the best performances of the year. Each scene she carries herself with a furious energy, while also bringing in layers of different emotions that inform the character, and the way she peels those layers as the film goes on is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s so good that I’m honestly kind of pissed that we’ve been wasting her talents since True Grit back in 2010. It’s a deceptively complex performance that she delivers with not only a great sense of humor, but pathos as well. Everyone else is really great, too. Woody Harrelson especially steals every scene he’s in, and Hayden Szeto manages to turn social awkwardness into an art form.
Kelly Fremon Craig has made something really special with The Edge of Seventeen. It has the charms, the wit, the heart that is required for any coming-of-age film, but in addition to that there’s a soul, an emotional complexity, and a sense of honesty and truth. I went from not thinking much of the film during its marketing to finding myself in tears by the time it was over. I have not been more surprised by a film this year. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful, hilarious, and incredibly resonating experience elevated even more by one of the year’s best performances in Hailee Steinfeld. It’s a film that I think will speak to a lot of people in a lot of different ways, and that’s rare, and really worth celebrating. 90/100