‘The Edge of Seventeen’ Review: This Decade’s Great Teen Angst Movie Has Finally Arrived
Ever since Tina Fey blessed us with Mean Girls, we’ve been anxiously awaiting a worthy successor — a film just as honest and perceptive about the teenage girl coming-of-age experience. The Edge of Seventeen is that film, a gloriously real story that feels as timeless as the great teen comedies of John Hughes, and as painful as My So-Called Life. It’s the kind of movie that only comes around once every decade or so, but it’s well worth the wait.
Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a high school junior whose life has only grown more agonizing since her father died: Her well-meaning mom (Kyra Sedgwick) is dating again, the cool boy she has a crush on doesn’t even know that she exists, and her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) just started hooking up with Nadine’s popular older brother (Blake Jenner). Life couldn’t be much worse for a teenage girl, especially one as quirky and awkward as Nadine.
Like Molly Ringwald and Claire Danes before her, Steinfeld makes Nadine the kind of loser we all wish we were (or could be friends with) in high school: She’s funny and stylish, but not in a glossy or carefully overdone way; with her mismatched clothes and exasperated attitude, she feels like a real teenager with real problems, or at least the sort of problems you could relate to at 16. But teens can be grating; they inhabit self-made myopic solar systems where everyone and everything revolves around the planet of Why Me. It’s no easy task to make a teenager endearing, much less likable, but Steinfeld does it effortlessly, making Nadine an empathetic character with multi-generational appeal.
That’s the hallmark of all great teen movies and TV shows — they are both products of their time and timeless. The superficial trappings of their respective eras do not define them; being a teenager does. It is incredibly rare for a character to be so transcendently empathetic, as poignant and relatable to a 30-year-old woman as she is to a high school girl. Watching Nadine cope with the heartbreak of losing her best (and only) friend to her own brother, or suffer the horror of accidentally sending a hilariously lewd text to her oblivious crush stirs distinctly painful feelings of recognition that are, in their own way, wonderful.
It is just as cringe-inducing and agonizing to watch as a naive Nadine gets in the car with her too-cool-for-school crush as it was to watch Angela Chase make-out with Jordan Catalano in the school boiler room. With that particular wisdom gifted to us only in hindsight, we recognize how unworthy these boys truly are of these beautiful, angsty young women. In the least shocking development of all time, Nadine’s crush isn’t interested in who she is or how she feels or what she likes; to him, all of that stuff is an annoying roadblock between him and the other side of her pants.
The Edge of Seventeen was written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, whose only previous feature credit is the screenplay for the 2009 Alexis Bledel dramedy Post Grad. That’s a shame, as Craig clearly has a handle on the coming-of-age emotional spectrum, crafting characters and experiences that most filmmakers reduce to simplistic stereotypes. Despite their narcissistic and hyperbolic tendencies, teenage lives do contain nuance; it’s only in retrospect that they become ridiculous and pitiable.
John Hughes’ influence on Craig is identifiable throughout her film, from the hopeless and hopeful Nadine to Woody Harrelson’s deceptively callous (and completely hilarious) history teacher, who also functions as her unlikely confidante. But there’s nothing as Hughes-ian as Erwin, the one kid in the whole school who might be more awkward than Nadine herself. Played by the insanely charming Hayden Szeto, Erwin is this generation’s Duckie divested of the retrograde “friend zone” concept and its sexist implications. Unsurprisingly, he’s also a genuinely good, considerate kid and way more romantically compatible with Nadine; as such, she willfully (and predictably) ignores his attempts to be more than friends.
The Edge of Seventeen is more than a worthy successor to Pretty in Pink and My So-Called Life and Mean Girls. It’s not just another great coming-of-age dramedy. It’s a great film. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 10 years for Craig to give us another.