It can be easy to write off teen high school comedies sometimes. For every Superbad or Say Anything, there are dozens of She’s All Thats and Can’t Hardly Waits to sift through to uncover the gold. This is, of course, usually the case with most genres of film, but teen comedies seem especially susceptible to the dichotomy, perhaps because it is so easy to relate to them. The awkward teen years are a generally universal concept, and it’s rare that a teen comedy protagonist is perfectly well adjusted, making them direct targets for empathy which allows the humor to hit close to home. These films often heavily simplify the real problems that teens face in the modern day, boiling it all down to house parties when the parents are out of town, trying to lose virginity and fretting about a date to the prom. Heavier topics tend to be an exception to the rule (betraying the comedy have of the genre label, presumably), but recently, films like The Spectacular Now and The Perks of Being a Wallflower have shown that the more serious trials and tribulations of adolescence could be considered without sacrificing the movie’s veracity. Now, in late 2016, another contender has entered the arena in the form of first time director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen.
The film focuses on Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), a high school junior whose life hasn’t recovered since the death of her father (played in flashback by Eric Keenleyside). Hers is a lonely existence, with only one real friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), a mother (Kyra Sedgwick) who alternates between over-protection and an almost callous disregard, and an impossibly perfect brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), who represents everything she wants but can’t seem to have. She spends her days at school pining for a bad boy senior (Alexander Calvert) and bothering her History teacher (Woody Harrelson) during lunch breaks. When Krista and Darian fall into a romantic relationship with each other, Nadine assumes betrayal and axes their friendship, isolating herself even more at a critical juncture in her emotional and intellectual development. The only bright spot is a friendly classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who has taken a liking to her despite her cratering self worth.
The key to success for a film like The Edge of Seventeen lies in the veracity of its characters and relationships. This is where so many high school teen movies fall short, starting with the situation and adding characters to fit instead of starting with the characters and determining the situations they would find themselves in organically. That is definitely the approach Fremon Craig takes, creating a compelling main character and shrewdly casting Hailee Steinfeld, to bring her to life. Steinfeld’s acting career stalled a bit after her breakout performance in True Grit, but her turn here capitalizes on the potential she showed in her first feature role six years ago. Nadine is a real three dimensional human, profoundly changed by the death of her father and clinging to her History teacher as a replacement patriarch even if she doesn’t consciously realize that’s what she needs. Her profoundly awkward and bumbling courtship with Hayden Szeto is pitch perfect, and the way she sabotages her only real friendship due to a perceived betrayal should ring true to anyone who lived through a hormone-charged adolescence. That authenticity is necessary to allow the humor to coexist with the film’s more serious developments without feeling maudlin or out of place.
Of course, Nadine’s authenticity wouldn’t count for much if she were surrounded by cartoon characters, and Fremon Craig puts equal effort and care into legitimizing the supporting cast, whether it’s Blake Jenner’s perfect jock brother quietly working overtime to keep his mother and sister from tearing each other apart or Haley Lu Richardson’s best friend trapped between her heart and her brain. Harrelson is perhaps most impressive beyond Steinfeld, bringing to life a a school teacher with a disaffected outer shell that only barely obscures the care he clearly feels for his students and Nadine in particular. Harrelson is the sort of actor who can still surprise with a good performance, in this case using his trademark late career gruff exterior to his advantage to establish that standoffishness that plasters over a caring center. Sedgwick has perhaps the toughest job in the film as her part is the most histrionic, but she balances her manic episodes well and does the work to ground it in actual character experience. It is an accomplished, excellent ensemble, skilled in all the ways needed to support the story the film wants to tell.
The Edge of Seventeen is likely to be ignored by the moviegoing public, released as counter programming to little fanfare the same weekend Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them dominated the domestic box office. This is a much better film than the Harry Potter prequel, full of actually interesting and engaging characters in a story that nearly everyone can relate to. Fremon Craig has shown poise that belies her lack of experience (this is her second feature script and first directorial effort), and her film deserves to find an audience, even if she must wait until it hits streaming and rental platforms. This is not a film that sticks out compared to big fall releases and prestige awards dramas, but it would be folly to ignore it simply because more exciting films are sucking up the screens around it. The Edge of Seventeen is an incisive and often hilarious look at our tumultuous teenage years and the events that shape our lives during our most formative development, presents a wonderful array of performances and hails an exciting new voice in writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig. Catch up with this one. You won’t be disappointed.