If movies stopped going to high school, that’s probably because high schoolers stopped going to movies. It was barely a decade ago that we were still basking in the afterglow of the golden age of teen comedies (The French Kiss New Wave), a magical time when all the hair was spiky, all the songs were performed by pop-punk cover bands, and all the graduating seniors were actually in their early 30s (so that Drew Barrymore could more easily slip inside their ranks).
But then the internet happened, emerging from a pubescence of its own, and the YA boom followed not long after that. Suddenly, high school life was only squeezed on screen in between wizard duels and vampire love affairs, the ghoulish horrors of those hallways made literal through newfangled mythology.
Save for the occasional John Green adaptation and a few standout indies (“Juno” and Gia Coppola’s exquisitely rendered “Palo Alto” spring to mind), it seemed as though one of our country’s most widely shared rites of passage had been relegated to the creative desert of network television, the whole genre offered up as a gimme for the CW and its ilk. Film, like a teenager, tends to speak about itself in the most dramatic terms, but this was one of those cuts that really made it feel like the medium was dying.
All of this is to say that “The Edge of Seventeen” isn’t just a welcome relief, it’s a genuine lifesaver. Pick a god, any god, and thank them for this movie. More directly, thank Kelly Fremon Craig, whose directorial debut confronts millennial teens with the same authenticity and verve that helped “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” jumpstart a revolution when it crash-landed into the ’80s. But labeling this as a new version of an old phenomenon would be a terrible disservice to the wryly hilarious and unflinchingly honest film that Craig hath delivered unto us — like its hard-luck heroine, “The Edge of Seventeen” acts like a hand-me-down but thinks like a true original.
The film, which is produced by the great James L. Brooks and is somehow not based on a pre-existing novel, seeps from the brain of a teenage virgin named Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld, who convincingly looks the part and leans into every flustered turn). Sagging towards her senior year at a dreary Pacific Northwest high school, Nadine is a normal enough kid who seems paralyzed in a perpetual state of “ugh” and pretty much thinks of herself as Job with an iPhone.
And really, who among us wouldn’t feel like they were on the receiving end of some serious divine punishment after their lifelong best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and flawless older brother (“Everybody Wants Some!!” star Blake Jenner) started sleeping together? None of us, that’s who. When you add that to the fact that her mom (Kyra Sedgwick) is never there, her lobotomized crush doesn’t know her name, and her sardonic teacher (an impeccably droll Woody Harrelson, who’s seldom been better-cast) says that she’s “dressed like a small elderly gentleman,” it almost doesn’t seem to matter that Nadine somewhat recently watched her loving father drop dead of a heart attack during one of their regular fast-food dates.
But Nadine isn’t defined by self-pity so much as self-loathing, and Steinfeld’s fantastically lived-in performance never forgets the difference. “Everyone in the world is as miserable and empty as I am,” she declares in a snippet of the film’s sporadic voiceover, “they’re just better at pretending.” Like all of the truly universal feelings, that sentiment only hurts so much because it fools you into thinking that you’re patient zero. Among Craig’s many apparent strengths as a writer is that she knows that isolation and relatability often go hand-in-hand.
Unfolding like a symphony of small humiliations, there isn’t a moment in this movie that doesn’t feel at least vaguely familiar, and there isn’t a moment in this movie that doesn’t feel completely true. If anything, “The Edge of Seventeen” only sinks deeper into its characters as it wades into territory that might have been strained in lesser hands — from Nadine’s midnight escape to her teacher’s house to her ambiguously romantic fumblings with an awkward kid named Erwin (Hayden Szeto) who feels as invisible as she does, the scenes with the highest potential for hokeyness are the ones that Craig and her cast most relish. This stuff may not be Chekhov (or have its roots in Shakespeare, as so many high school movies do), but very seldom have these types of characters not felt like types at all. When shit gets heavy between Nadine and her brother, both Steinfeld and Jenner tap into a sense of depth so real that it almost seems alien to the genre.
Reality is key, here. Nobody is going to confuse “The Edge of Seventeen” for a Dardennes-like docudrama, but the film combines the accessibility of a Hollywood comedy with the decidedly unromantic bleariness of a grey fall afternoon. It’s a casual rated “R” character study where nothing shimmers, and where you only hear a recognizable song because Nadine is shouting along to Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” in her bedroom. Ironically, one of Steinfeld’s own pop hits may have proven more helpful for the young woman on the brink, as hers is nothing if not a story about someone who needs to learn how to “love myself.”
Your teenage years can feel like an open wound, and Nadine is worried about bleeding out before her hurt scabs over. “There are two types of people in the world,” Nadine tells us. “The confident, and the people who hope the confident die.” Maybe that’s true, but the witty and altogether wonderful film that Craig has crafted around her suggests that most of us fall somewhere in the middle as we learn how to live with ourselves. “The Edge of Seventeen” probably won’t kickstart a new rash of high school movies, but this one is good enough to sustain us for a long time.
“The Edge of Seventeen” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in theaters by STX Entertainment on November 18th, 2016.