“The Edge of Seventeen” is not a movie we deserve, but a movie we need. The film is the directorial debut for screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig (“Post Grad”). The idea of a movie about a girl that’s written and directed by a woman (a former girl) is already (unfortunately) refreshing, but Craig also fills her film with enough humor and heart to feel new even in a jam-packed genre.
For a long time, the halls of high school have preferred the small screen, with shows like “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl” taking the place of “Clueless” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” “The Edge of Seventeen” feels like the rare instance when you run into someone you used to know and it isn’t awful — it’s actually weirdly wonderful.
Nadine, played brilliantly by Hailee Steinfeld (“Pitch Perfect 2”), is nervous and awkward. Her sanity hinges on her relationship with her only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardon, “The Bronze”), so naturally all hell breaks loose inside Nadine’s almost-seventeen-year-old brain when Krista starts dating her older brother Darien (Blake Jenner, “Everybody Wants Some!!”).
Steinfeld is back, giving the kind of performance we haven’t seen from her since her breakout role in the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” remake. The Nadine she creates is at any moment both heartbreakingly relatable and wholly unlikable.What “The Edge of Seventeen” captures so masterfully is the intensity of emotions at that age and the loneliness that comes from feeling them. Nadine feels, like many teenagers do, completely alone in her suffering. Craig treats the absurdity of these feelings with exquisite empathy and gentleness.
Sure, it’s familiar. Major plot points of teen movies are hit — fight with a friend, close relationship with a teacher, awkward sexual encounter with the wrong boy before ending up with the right one. The movie walks the line of cliché, but its familiarity works in its favor, conveying a sense of universality and breathing originality into stock scenes. The song Nick (Alexander Calvert, “Arrow”), Nadine’s bad boy crush, plays in the car for Nadine — Angus & Julia Stone’s “Big Jet Plane” — is exactly the sort of song a boy would have played for me in high school. It knows its world and stays true to it. The attention to detail from the soundtrack to Nadine’s costuming creates a world that is both intricately singular and emotionally universal.
That treatment gets extended to all of the characters. There are no villains in “The Edge of Seventeen.” Even Krista, whose transgression could have easily been spun as betrayal, is a good person who cares deeply about Nadine. No one is a stereotype and no one — not even Nick, who has very limited screen time — is one-dimensional. It’s refreshingly realistic and the strongest force keeping “Seventeen” away from the forgettable teen movie abyss.
The biggest issue with “The Edge of Seventeen” has nothing to do with the movie itself, but rather with the fact that the Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an R rating. That’s absurd. So, okay, it fails the one “fuck” test, there’s underage drinking and some bra-on almost-sex. In the age of the internet, where any thirteen-year-old can, with very few clicks, find as many nipples and swear words as they want, it seems naïve to think that no one under the age of seventeen is fit to see a movie like “The Edge of Seventeen.” It’s also disappointing because this is exactly the sort of movie I needed at fifteen or sixteen and also exactly the sort of movie I would never, at that age, want to see with my parents.