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Review: In ‘The Edge of Seventeen,’ the teen film comes of age

John Hughes imitators have found a lot of work over the years. While a decent “teen film” is never a bad thing, few offered more than laughs. Juno, from 2007, countered its emotional storyline with witty dialogue; too bad that dialogue never seemed completely genuine. Easy A served as a popular introduction of Emma Stone to the mainstream, but it was a comedy with very little on its mind. Few of these films have taken the time and emotional care to look at the world through these young people’s eyes like The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Enter The Edge of Seventeen, the debut feature from writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig. At once heartbreaking, hilarious and comforting, it is a rare, resonant film that works within its genre while doing what it can to expand and critique it. There aren’t many surprises, but few films are this understanding or heartfelt.

Craig owes much of her success behind the camera to her cast. Hailee Steinfeld, who rose to prominence at the age of 14 after her Oscar-nominated turn in True Grit, plays Nadine, a 17-year-old high schooler constantly at odds with life itself. Since the death of her father, her family has felt splintered apart. Her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) hangs over the house like a suffocating raincloud, while her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is successful, cool and everything Nadine isn’t. Since elementary school, she’s relied on the presence of her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) to keep her sane. That changes when Nadine walks into Darian’s room one morning and catches Krista in his bed. Cue the drama.

None of this sounds particularly funny or original. It’s The Edge of Seventeen’s greatest weakness. To a large extent, very little of this story is unexplored territory, with boy crushes, awkward dates and abundant, sass-filled dialogue. But there’s also plenty to love here. The film’s cinematography, shot by Doug Emmett, is fairly unremarkable but deserves note for its ability to pull warmth and understated beauty from suburban, everyday images.

But the film’s towering achievement is its commitment to grounded, believable encounters and conversations, a feature that consistently defies expectations. None of the characters are perfect, and it shows. Nadine’s history teacher (Woody Harrelson) is her frequent confidant, but he often seems keen to spar with his student rather than offering guidance or comfort. Darian is a constant thorn in Nadine’s side, and his annoyingly nonchalant attitude makes it easy to understand why. Nadine also has an admirer named Edwin (Hayden Szeto) whose acute awkwardness provides plenty to cringe about. Even Nadine herself, with her constant complaints and sarcasm, is distinctly unlikeable at times.

And yet, isn’t that the point? Whether or not the audience comes to like every one of these characters immediately doesn’t really matter, as each one carries any number of flaws. What is important is that each of them feels fundamentally real. To this end, Craig’s script does an excellent job giving each one of them chances to shine. Even in a film that exists from Nadine’s perspective, none of the people around her seem tertiary or static.

While the film begins and ends on a note familiar to fans of the teen genre, plenty of the film’s beats explore heavy, emotional territory. And in these moments, The Edge of Seventeen is simply terrific, offering a funny, relatable portrait of youth. By the time the credits roll, it stands tall as one of the year’s very best films.

Watch the trailer for The Edge of Seventeen below:

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]