Earlier this year, I reviewed the teen-centered documentary All This Panic, and despite liking the film, I wondered why anyone would want to revisit the awkward years of adolescence. The better question would have been why anyone would have wanted to revisit the real experience of awkward adolescence, since in reality, we regularly seek out movies about fictional high school experiences. Movies about what 20- or 30-something adults think or wish their teenage years were like are big business in Hollywood, and The Edge of Seventeen is the latest entry into the would-be canon.
This time around, in the role of “girl who will be much more popular in college than she is in high school,” we have Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). Nadine is a teenager navigating the many complicated relationships in her life – mostly with dudes, but I’ll come back to that – and having a rough go of it. Not rough rough, but teenage rough. There are family issues, school issues, cute broody guy issues… you know the drill. The event that precipitates a whole new level of teen drama is her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) hooking up and starting a relationship. There’s more context in the movie, but the general idea is that Nadine feels like she’s lost the most important person in her life to the person to whom she can never measure up. The whole thing sounds petty, and it is petty, but initially the look at what happens when a close friendship is challenged by a new relationship is more nuanced then we usually see – even in adult friendships.
Unfortunately, in the second half of the movie, things shift and the story becomes more about the brother-sister implications of the relationship. It’s one of the factors in what is my biggest objection to The Edge of Seventeen: this story about a 17-year-old girl revolves almost entirely around the relationships that 17-year-old girl has with a bunch of different boys and men. There’s her put-upon brother. There’s the hot dangerous guy she’s into (Alexander Calvert). There’s the cute nerdy guy who’s into her (Hayden Szeto). There’s the gruff no-nonsense teacher who secretly cares (Woody Harrelson). There’s even the adored father whose unexpected death left the family in turmoil for years (Eric Keenleyside). There’s some time spent on Krista and on Nadine’s woefully inadequate mother (Kyra Sedgwick), but mostly it’s about the dudes. So much so, in fact, that I was shocked to find out while watching the credits that The Edge of Seventeen was written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, who seems to be not a male at all, but in fact a woman.
To Craig’s credit, aside from barely clearing the Bechdel bar, the film is well-written. The dialogue is sharp, and not at all reflective of how teenage humans speak. In the same vein, depending on your perspective, the bad boy crush turning out to be a legitimately terrible dude and the quiet awkward guy turning out to be sweet and wonderful are either tired tropes or comfortably formulaic. The screenplay is snappy even if the storylines are predictable.
The cast is also top-notch. Steinfeld is believably charming, vulnerable, and self-centered as Nadine, and the awkward chemistry between Nadine and Hayden Szeto’s Erwin is the most authentic and endearing part of the film. Woody Harrelson also plays the cool, sarcastic teacher role with the balance required to walk the fine line between being genuinely caring and genuinely creepy.
Although I have some reservations about what it’s doing, The Edge of Seventeen does what it does very well. Craig brings a smart humor to the coming-of age flick formula, and the cast does their part, bringing as much sincerity to the movie as it can hold. The Edge of Seventeen will bring out a sense of nostalgia among adults. Any teenage viewers will likely be skeptical, but this movie isn’t for them anyway. At least not for another decade.