Just about every teen movie with a sparky female lead since 2004 has drawn comparisons, favourable or otherwise, back to the endlessly quotable Mean Girls. This didn’t used to happen back in the heyday of American teen movies, but nowadays, it feels comparatively rare to see anything new in this sub-genre. But if writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut film, The Edge Of Seventeen, is half as appreciated as it deserves to be, then it might just be a more modern benchmark.
For starters, 17-year-old Nadine Franklin is not only a uniquely and ferociously anti-social character, especially when compared to her fellow protagonists in this type of film, but she’s also (at long last) a lead role worthy of Hailee Steinfeld, whose Oscar nominated turn in the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of True Grit spoke to her massive potential as a movie star.
Nadine’s personality plants her squarely in a social void. She doesn’t make friends easily, she doesn’t get on with her widowed mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and she loathes her effortlessly popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) whom one of her classmates blithely remarks is as different to Nadine as Arnold Schwarzenegger is to Danny DeVito in Twins.
Her only refuge in an environment that she finds lonely and infuriating is the angelic Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) who has had her back since the second grade. So, when Krista and Darian hit it off, Nadine spirals into a jealous rage, venting at history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and a similarly awkward classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) about her oh-so-terrible lot in life.
Fremon Craig’s obvious advantage here over the male filmmakers of recent teen movie favourites like Easy A and The DUFF is that she was actually a teenage girl once, and while this may not be autobiographical, it feels like a film with an affinity for and understanding of the silly shit that we all do or think when we’re at this turbulent age. But while there are countless teen movies with male dipshits, whether angry or horny or entitled, but characters like Olive Penderghast and Bianca Piper are usually more quirky than actually flawed.
Meanwhile, Nadine has a flair for melodrama – the film begins with a flash-forward in which she rants at Mr. Bruner about how she’s decided to kill herself, but hasn’t decided how she’ll do it – and a deceptively hard exterior that often goes further than you expect from your regular teen movie heroine. Steinfeld fearlessly harnesses the adolescent rage of the character and sets up Nadine well enough that you can almost understand where she’s coming from at any given point, even when she’s being completely irrational – which is most of the running time. Also, note that she was 19 when she shot this film, bucking the trend of having 20-somethings play high school kids.
Steinfeld is ably supported by Harrelson, who’s his usual laconic self as a teacher with hidden depths, who treats her as an adult by giving back as good as he gets. Most of the best exchanges in the film are between these two, as they bat insults and genuine concern back and forth across Bruner’s desk. It also serves to emphasise the contrast in her interactions with the adorable, guileless Erwin, who isn’t as used to her sarcasm and awkwardness, starting with a hilariously awkward encounter on a ferris wheel and evolving with a flawless needle drop of Miles Betterman’s The Dickhead Song.
Sedgwick is superb too, as Nadine’s long-suffering mother, engaging in both physical comedy and emotional jousts as she tries to coax her jaded and often hostile daughter out of the mutual enmity that they’ve allowed to grow between them. But Mona is hurting too and although the story is incited by the disintegration of Nadine’s friendship with Krista, Fremon Craig has a better handle on her supporting characters’ relationships and foibles than most writers might, building to an all-round cathartic conclusion.
The filmmaker has said that she took a “crazy longshot” by sending her spec script to producer James L. Brooks, whose Gracie Films went on to produce the film. Whether the name rings a bell or not, you all know the Gracie Films ident. A woman shushes noisy cinema patrons as the lights go out and the name of the production company is projected on screen – you must have seen this the end of at least one of the 604 (and counting!) episodes of The Simpsons that ends this way.
Given the standards of cinema behaviour these days, it might be a nice idea to have Brooks’ logo appear at the beginning of every movie. But then what do we know? The film has a terrific scene that requires one of the characters to text while watching a screening, and that’s just one of the ways in which this honest and grounded teen movie surprised us.
With great central performances by Steinfeld and the supporting cast and a potent serving of cringe comedy, The Edge Of Seventeen feels like a definitive coming-of-age movie for the 2010s. It’s neither blasé nor downbeat, and it isn’t faking by cobbling together a character from stereotypes and social media – for what feels like the first time in forever, it’s a teen movie that doesn’t have a viral video sub-plot in sight. Instead, Kelly Fremon Craig engages with the current generation of teens on their own level, with sharp wit and prickly honesty.
The Edge Of Seventeen is in UK cinemas now.