For those mourning the absence of the late John Hughes in their moviegoing lives, there may well be a worthy successor in the form of budding writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig. As someone whose patience for the Hughesian suburban high school dram-com subgenre is typically less than thin, I can say I was pleasantly surprised by The Edge of Seventeen’s unflinching honesty and Craig’s ability to balance the razor’s edge between endearing and off-putting that her protagonist so successfully walks. I can’t think of a more ingratiating coming-of-age film in recent memory, and most of Edge’s success is due to its protagonist’s frustratingly relatable adolescent inadequacies.
The narrative begins on a predictably saccharine note, with begrudging protagonist Nadine narrating her longstanding struggle to make friends and win the affection of her mother in the shadow of popular older brother Darian, with a doting father and her newfound playground bestie Krista her only respite. I say “begrudging protagonist” because things quickly take a darker turn, and these events are ultimately framed in flashback by a pseudo-suicidal Nadine, now a junior in high school, who doesn’t want to die so much as she would like to be excused from her innate responsibility to be the hero of her own story. Given that said story involves not only the premature death of her father and the unexpected coupling of her only friend with her oft-resented brother, but also a mortifyingly explicit accidental sext message to a would-be beau, her reticence is understandable.
What makes Nadine such a great character — and Edge such a great film — is that, like her friends and family, the audience comes to appreciate her because of her flaws, not just in spite of them. It’s here that Craig’s writing really shines, generating empathy for her protagonist with Nadine’s every sardonically cruel barb or unremittingly naive decision. Although Craig’s visual acumen as a director may be somewhat workmanlike and uninspired at present, her story sense and ear for dialogue more than make up for the shortcomings that experience will inevitably surmount.
While Craig’s directorial aptitudes may not place her among the top aesthetic stylists working in the industry, her capacity to enable actors is nothing short of remarkable, promising greater things to come if this film is to be taken as any indication. Kyra Sedgwick shines as Nadine’s marginally narcissistic mother, and Blake Jenner and Haley Lu Richardson are both slightly better than I would’ve expected in their roles as Darian and Krista. The real standouts, however, are Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine and Woody Harrelson as her favorite teacher (and mentor in the sarcastic arts), Mr. Bruner. While the relationship between their characters might not be unique within the context of the genre, the warmth, believability and emotional effect these two actors are able to generate distinguishes Edge from other films of its ilk.
Craig’s propensity to upend cliche and breathe new life into tired genre tropes speaks volumes to her potential as an emergent cinematic voice, as does the mentorship of producer James L. Brooks from which the filmmaker has so clearly benefited. There’s a comedic cosmology to Nadine’s universe in which cause follows effect only in so far as it leads to a universal punchline. When she breaks down and prays in a public restroom, asking what God has ever done for her only to find there’s no more toilet paper, it’s hard to overlook the Brooksian sensibility at play.
The Edge of Seventeen isn’t as smug as Juno or as self-consciously strange as Napoleon Dynamite, and it isn’t as oversimplified as The Breakfast Club or as sentimental as Sixteen Candles. It has all the black humor of Heathers or Better Off Dead but none of the pat condescension of Clueless or Mean Girls. It’s more nuanced than Fast Times at Ridgemont High and more believable than Say Anything. In short, it’s about as close as I’m likely to come to loving a teen movie. Rated R for sexual content, language and drinking involving teens.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.