In The Edge of Seventeen, Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine Byrd. She’s a high school junior beset by a fairly typical array of problems: family that doesn’t understand her, a small cluster of friends whose loyalty is continually tested, the always baffling pile-up of signals from boys. If the issues aren’t familiar from life, they certainly will tickle the recollection of anyone who’s watched a movie about teen-aged existence, at least those that flowed downstream from the rough seas sailed by Commodore John Hughes. Even as I type that out, becoming approximately the ten million and seventy-seventh person to handily categorize The Edge of Seventeen with a fleet of other movies on little more than the age of the protagonists, I feel like I’m doing it a disservice. That’s overly reductive, like equating one of Judy Blume’s classic novels of youthful angst with The Hunger Games because both technically belong in the Young Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen has some of the rhythms of the high school comedies the ad campaign lists off with eagerness. It’s funny enough and strives for poignant truths that aren’t too alarming. Even so, the film strikes me as less of a warm-hearted comedy and more of a slice of life drama, laced with insight and flickers of humor that, at their strongest, derive from sharply drawn characters instead of watchwork assemblages of set-up and punchline. When Nadine grudgingly attends a party in tow with her oldest friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and brother (Blake Jenner) — newly canoodling, to Nadine’s chagrin — she is eventually the recipient of an ego-bruising gag, but what really sticks is the quieter observation of her awkward movements through the strange social territory. Nadine circles clusters of chatting peers, unable to decipher the secret code that would gain her entrance into their relaxed rapport.
In other high school movies, awkwardness is a thin sheet draped atop a cool kid waiting to emerge, or it’s injected with a side of steroids into some weirdo comic relief who flits around the edges of the story. Here it drives most of the key interactions, including those between Nadine and the sweet classmate (Hayden Szeto) who pines for her. The depiction of adolescent unease drains any sense of movieland affection from it, pumping authenticity into the scenes. It also gives Steinfeld her best chance to truly dig into a character since her sterling coming out party in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, and she responds winningly. She delivers a wisely measured performance, even as she shows exactly how the emotions of a teen-ager churn right there on the surface, like oil atop the water.
As with Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… almost thirty years ago, this unusually perceptive film about characters under the age of twenty benefits from the mentoring of James L. Brooks. The creator of his own set of beautifully-written films, Brooks championed Craig as a valuable new voice. More importantly, he reportedly helped Craig find her way to the finished product, not by workshopping the script as much as shrewdly encouraging her to stick close to the honesty of what she was creating. The storytelling can get a bit wooly at times and the film wobbles a bit when it hits more conventional beats, but overall there’s a strong sense of purpose coming through. The Edge of Seventeen is finally a worthy successor to other films dappled with the fingerprints of Brooks over the years, including those brushed more lightly like Crowe’s early work and the first feature by Wes Anderson. It’s not because Craig’s film is all the similar in its surface elements. It’s because it bends towards a truth that reflects well on her artistry. As Nadine learns in the film, there are a lot of ways to be fearless.