Movie review: ‘Edge of Seventeen’ enters rare teenage air
There is a short list of high school films that can grasp and accurately depict the pain, anguish and heartache of the teenage experience: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the works of John Hughes, “Mean Girls,” “Easy A.”
Add “The Edge of Seventeen” to that prestigious list. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig and star Hailee Steinfeld team up for the decade’s best teenage movie, a funny, touching, gutting rumination on modern teenage life in America.
Steinfeld, a knockout at age 14 in the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” (and a charter member of Taylor Swift’s #Squad), is transcendent as Nadine Byrd, an 11th-grader who has a roof over her head and clothes in her closet, but whose life is otherwise in shambles. Her father died several years ago and she’s still dealing with the loss, though she mainly uses it now as an excuse to try to weasel out of homework assignments.
Like most teenage girls she’s constantly at the throat of her exhausted mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and she can’t stand her jocky, cocky older brother Darian (Blake Jenner of “Everybody Wants Some!”) and his too-tight T-shirts. When her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) falls for Darian it’s a blatant stab to the heart, a betrayal of the highest order, akin to treason.
And that’s the jist of “Edge of Seventeen.” Craig’s not dealing with acts of terrorism or world issues. But her script is empathetic and universal enough to know that to a teen, these are apocalyptic problems. It’s not that Steinfeld’s Nadine is self-centered (although she is), but these people — her friends, her family, her classmates — are her entire world, and she can’t escape the feeling that her universe is collapsing around her.
Nadine is far from a saint: She’s petty, dramatic and unapologetic. But that only makes the film feel more real, and “The Edge of Seventeen” reaches a level of authenticity that few films, teenage or otherwise, are capable of achieving.
Craig has an ear for dialogue and the sarcastic, cutting raunch that permeates teenage language. The script is “Juno”-sharp, minus the kitschy, pained slang (“honest to blog!”) that rendered that film an instant time capsule.
Steinfeld is stunning as the lead in a role that’s alternately heartfelt and hilarious; she’s the center of the film and the movie is unthinkable without her, the same way Alicia Silverstone was essential to “Clueless.”
She is helped along by an outstanding supporting cast which includes newcomer Hayden Szeto as Erwin, Nadine’s classmate who harbors a sizable crush on her, and Woody Harrelson, who is as good as he has ever been as Mr. Bruner, Nadine’s history teacher and confidant. Bruner is wise, kind, forgiving and fatherly, and Harrelson brings a warmth to this wry cynic that makes his character live and breathe.
“Edge of Seventeen” is produced by James L. Brooks, the genius who has put his human stamp on projects ranging from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “The Simpsons” to “Broadcast News” and “As Good As It Gets.” “The Edge of Seventeen” is his first film project in years, and it’s worthy of his name; it carries his grace and elegance throughout.
But Craig deserves credit above all else. Like Amy Heckerling before her, she simply gets teens, which is such a difficult feat that even most teens don’t manage to pull it off. She has compassion for and insight into the teenage experience and she treats it with an understanding that lifts the film above its contemporaries.
“Edge of Seventeen” is something special. To see it is to remember what it’s like to be 17, and to be grateful you’re not 17 anymore.
‘Edge of Seventeen’
Rated R for sexual content, language and some drinking — all involving teens
Running time: 104 minutes