If I ever have the pleasure of meeting or speaking with writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, I’m going to thank her from the bottom of my heart for reminding me of something about my high school years that I’d sadly forgotten—something that her first feature, The Edge of Seventeen, brought back for me. For those of us who went through an awkward, vulnerable phase in our mid- to late teens, no one had a greater capacity to embarrass us or made us feel awkward than we did to ourselves. I’m not saying bullies didn’t/don’t exist or that substantial hurt can’t be caused by others, but so many of the most humiliating moments in my high school years were self-inflicted, often the result of overthinking a situation and not having the maturity or knowledge that comes with age to simply backpedal out of moment gracefully.
As with many self realizations (and realizations about others) in those formative years, I think the first time I recognized these trends was when they were framed in the films of John Hughes, in particular, The Breakfast Club. As much as he was attempting to embody high school archetypes in those five students, there were specific traits in each that I saw in myself and others that seems to clarify the way my tiny world was at the time. Jumping ahead 30 years since that film opened, I was introduced to high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit and Pitch Perfect 2), whose life is far from perfect, but she’s smart, and she has a loyal best friend. People leave her alone for the most part as well, maybe too much for her tastes.
In the six years since her breakthrough work in True Grit, Steinfeld has largely played a succession of fairly confident young women in films like Begin Again, The Keeping Room, and 10,000 Saints. But in The Edge of Seventeen, she slips effortlessly into the role of a girl convinced that being herself is without a doubt the wrong way to get anywhere in her surroundings. In some ways, Nadine is wise beyond her years; in others, she’s more of a child than her peers. She befriends a teacher, Mr. Burner (a bemused Woody Harrelson), who pretends to barely tolerate her overly dramatic cries for help, including a suicide note that she wrote, which he counters with his own suicide note draft, in which he dreams of the sweet release of death rather than have to listen to her any longer. It sounds mean, I know, but Harrelson is one of a small number of actors who can make it work and be funny.
While Nadine’s crush on a school bad boy (Alexander Calvert) is certainly part of her pain-and-suffering equation, her biggest dilemma occurs when her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) begins dating her her year-older brother Darian (Blake Jenner, seen earlier this year in Everybody Wants Some!!), seemingly a good guy despite being a jock and ridiculously popular. In one moment, Nadine has a sister-in-arms, and the next she’s losing Krista to what she perceives to be The Dark Side. Her pain is very real, but it might not be grounded in reality. Making matters so much worse (and probably the source of many of Nadine’s woes), her largely absent single mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is lost in her work and in trying to have her own social life and has very little time to actually raise her daughter or give her any concrete guidance or advice.
The filmmaker is wise not to specifically highlight any one cause of Nadine’s personality defects. She simply lays out her life, and leaves it to the audience to draw conclusions, perhaps even focusing on shortcomings in our own lives that we share with Nadine. The one glimmer of hope in her life is the presence of Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a fellow outcast with a heart of gold and a crush on Nadine, to which she, of course, is oblivious. But we’ve seen a John Hughes’ movie or three; we know how things usually turn out for the nice guy. The Edge of Seventeen feels as honest and authentic as any film centering on teens in high school that I’ve seen in many years. It has an inherent sweetness (there aren’t really any bad guys here) but manages to avoid any sense of sentimentality. This is a smart movie about smart people who still don’t have all the answers, but are patient enough to see where their search for answers take them. In case you couldn’t tell, this guy in his late 40s really loved this movie.
To read my exclusive interview with The Edge of Seventeen star Hailee Steinfeld, go to Ain’t It Cool News.