High school movies are tricky. Filmmakers can, despite their best intentions, idealize their own adolescence or forget what it was actually like to be young, leading to films that feel dishonest. Or they can veer too far in one tonal direction. Some films are too dour, forgetting that most teenagers are vibrant and full of life, despite periods of emotional upheaval. Others are light, sophomoric comedies that make high school seem like one big party, without any acknowledgment of the pain that comes with the loss of innocence one experiences on the precipice of adulthood.
A trend that I’m personally sick of is filmmakers producing films set when they were in high school, effectively turning movies meant to be universal portraits of the teenage experience into period pieces that have no relation to modern concerns and amount to little more than nostalgia porn. (I’m looking at you, “Dazed and Confused.”)
I don’t mean to wax poetic; I’m just trying to emphasize how rare it is to find a high school film that feels honest, sympathizing with teenagers’ experiences while not excusing the moments of poor judgment they are prone to. “The Edge of Seventeen” comes so close that it feels like a revelation. It doesn’t quite reach the ideal of a teen film, but for anyone looking to make a film about high school, there are many lessons to be learned from this delightful comedy/drama.
Written and directed by first-timer Kelly Fremon Craig, “The Edge of Seventeen” details several weeks in the life of high school junior Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld), an awkward social outsider still dealing with the unexpected death of her father. Nadine feels additionally alienated due to her high-strung, hyper-critical mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and the comparisons she receives to her beloved, golden-boy older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). She finds solace in her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), but even that is taken from her when Krista and Darian start dating. Nadine must learn how to deal with these new circumstances and navigate high school with only the help of her mostly apathetic history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and an adorably awkward admirer, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).
What distinguishes this film from others of its ilk is the clear-headed portrayal of its protagonist. Nadine, while likable and funny, is also a jerk and frequently puts her foot in her mouth. In mainstream films, we often see likeable protagonists doing unlikeable things, but they’re rarely treated this harshly. While still sympathetic to her anxiety and troubles, Craig doesn’t let Nadine off the hook for her self-centeredness. It’s a brilliant upending of both sides of the “misunderstood teenager” coin. Typically, the archetypical teenager is melancholically noble, because no one understands them, or they’re a spoiled brat, a sociopathic nuisance to everyone around them. Nadine is neither. She’s a complex young woman dealing with the pains of loneliness, low self-esteem and existential confusion.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is sure to garner comparisons to the films of John Hughes and another female-directed high school comedy, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” but it’s superior to both thanks to its psychological acuity, empathy and tone. Hughes’ films often paint somebody, usually adults or another antagonistic teenager, as the villain, somebody to cramp the kid’s style and validate their beliefs that the world just isn’t fair, and those movies can feel callous and nasty because of this. “The Edge of Seventeen” has understanding for everyone that comes before its lens. Not to mention it’s much funnier than any of those older films, finding humor in places where Hughes wouldn’t even think to look. It does have a certain raunchy quality that is typical of recent high school comedies like “Superbad” and the like, but thankfully it never strays into outright crassness.
Craig’s hilarious script stands on its own, but it’s aided by her talented cast, Harrelson and Szeko in particular. (Kudos to Craig for including an Asian-American as the love interest, even if he does verge on being a nerdy stereotype.) And Steinfeld gives one of the best performances by an actress I’ve seen this year, walking that thin likeable/unlikeable line with a tight-rope walker’s precision.
Of course, the movie isn’t perfect. At times it rests on clichés and feels very Hollywood, and the ending is a little too cute and tidy. And Craig’s direction could be a little more inventive. Despite its energy, the film suffers from that unpolished quality that is symptomatic of first-feature-itis.
But all these criticisms only further demonstrate how enjoyable the film is and how impressive a debut it is for Craig. This is a warm, entertaining coming-of-age movie that can help adults understand their teenagers and help teenagers understand themselves.