John Hughes is an unmistakable touchstone of the coming of age 1980s high school dramedy. Films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off chronicled the adolescent experience of growing up, dealing with teen angst and self-actualization while mixing in a dash of old fashioned screwball comedy which at once provides relatable laughter for the viewer while making the dramatic pills easier to swallow. All of those undeniably come to mind when watching the directorial debut of Post Grad screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen, a coming of age high school comedy about a socially awkward and unhappy teenage girl named Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit) whose best friend enters a relationship with her hunky older brother (Blake Jenner from Everybody Wants Some). And yet it is Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High that The Edge of Seventeen finds its closest antecedent in, providing at once a funny and sympathetic rom com and a decidedly darker, more explicit look at budding female sexuality in a world adorned with dumb horny males who care nothing for the heroine’s plight and emotional crossroads. At times its unbearable watching Nadine suffer while at the same time the film doesn’t deny her own complicitness in the creation of her teenage misery. At first on the outset this looked like another Juno/Ghost World lovechild but as it progressed I was surprised how funny, charming, touching and well thought out this portrait of adolescent fear, anxiety and depression really was. Sure we’ve seen this movie done to death, but The Edge of Seventeen provided a fresh spin on the proceedings that kept it from blending together with what came before it.
For a first time effort, Craig’s writer-director effort is pretty good and lacks the self-satisfied hipster cool about itself Juno’s Diablo Cody couldn’t get away from. This is of course due entirely to the central performance by Hailee Steinfeld, who imbues Nadine with the same kind of quirky ugly girl anxieties Heather Matarazzo brought to Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. Part of what makes The Edge of Seventeen compulsively watchable in addition to its sharp sense of humor and keen insight into the high school experience is being stuck with Nadine even when she can’t stand herself anymore than we can. Ordinarily the miseries are one sided but in this case Nadine is just as responsible for her plight as those around her. Equally strong if not hilariously funny is Woody Harrelson as a sarcastic high school teacher who almost always has words of wisdom mixed with snark in every reply he has to Nadine’s whiny pity parties. If anything, he makes the film all by himself and every scene he has onscreen is comedic gold! I also liked Nadine’s best friend Krista, played by Haley Lu Richardson, who is sympathetic as the lonely girl’s best friend that can’t help but also start to outgrow Nadine’s pathetic whining and complaining. Blake Jenner more or less plays the same guy he did in Everybody Wants Some which isn’t a bad thing, giving us an older brother who looks on the outset like a jock but in truth is among the most responsible and caring adults in the movie. Only Kyra Sedgwick as the histrionic single mother shaken by her late husband’s death and Nadine’s ongoing shenanigans tends to overplay her part, at one point devolving into a fit her son Darian (Blake Jenner) has to defuse.
I went into this rom com thinking I had seen it all before and while for the most part I had, I was pleasantly surprised by this teenage female character study which speaks to the misfit loner in all of us while providing hope that even the most difficult basket cases can find love and happiness in a world which seems stacked against us. Some of Nadine’s behavior goes beyond the point of forgiveness but I never felt like the picture was pushing me away from her. My only real complaints involve a couple of moments where Nadine remarks her hair looks like Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite and the soundtrack drops Aimee Mann’s Save Me over a montage, taking me out of the picture right into the ending of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Lose those bits and you have a solid teen dramedy which had more on its mind and heart than I was anticipating. Far less acerbic than The Diary of a Teenage Girl and far more engaging than the look-at-me cool of Juno, The Edge of Seventeen gave this otherwise jaded filmgoer whose seen this kind of movie dozens of times over a swell time at the movies. John Hughes, Amy Heckerling and the 1980s may be long since past us but the sensibilities harbored in both directors’ works are far from over, fitting nicely into the modern millennial social media driven generation and serving as a remind that the more technology and eras change, the more the lives of those experiencing it remain the same.
- Andrew Kotwicki