There’s plenty that feels familiar about Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut, “The Edge of Seventeen,” a high school-set comedy that follows a particularly bad period in teen Nadine Byrd’s (Hailee Steinfeld) already-traumatic life. Craig, who previously penned the script for the similarly female-centric comedy “Post Grad,” is a longtime admirer of the kind of teen films to which “Seventeen” has already been compared, and counts John Hughes and Cameron Crowe as some of her favorite filmmakers.
The film has already garnered glowing reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it’s serving as the fest’s official Closing Night Film. (IndieWire’s own David Ehrlich heralded it as “an instant high school classic” in his review.) Craig’s film eschews the kind of glossy veneer that so often coats current high school-based offerings, instead opting to deliver a charmingly flawed lead character who is thrust into some very relatable situations, the sort of feature Hughes and Crowe used to make back in the day.
“I think what [those films] did was they touched on something real and universal,” Craig said in a recent interview, citing films like “The Breakfast Club” as major influences. “I think all of those movies, in their own way, pay respect to how complicated it is to be young and how messy it is, and also the absurdity of it.”
Craig’s film also doesn’t shy away from showing the messy, complicated and absurd sides of teen life. In “The Edge of Seventeen,” Steinfeld plays Nadine, a life-long outcast who has navigated her way through all sorts of setbacks – a cool older brother, a dead father, an out of touch mother and a profound inability to fit in with pretty much everyone else – if only because she has a dedicated best pal at her side. But when said BFF Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating Nadine’s loathed older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), Nadine is woefully unable to deal with the fallout. Instead of responding with positivity and maturity, she basically implodes her entire life, all in the hopes of cratering the burgeoning relationship and hoarding Krista all to herself.
A Coming-of-Age Story For All
Yet, for all that drama, the film is still very funny.
“I do think the movie is fundamentally a comedy,” Craig said. “But I’m always using comedy as a basis to find my way into something deeper than that, something I’m trying to figure out.”
For Nadine, part of her problem – beyond a serious attitude problem, which Steinfeld manages to pull off with some necessary charm – is the belief that everyone else in her life is having a much better time of things. While writing the film’s script, Craig fixed on that idea as the film’s true inspiration.
“Part of what I was exploring and what inspired me was this idea that I think a lot of us carry around that everybody has life figured out except you,” Craig explained. “It’s particularly loud in your life at that age. It’s really easy to believe it. It’s easy to romanticize other people’s lives and feel worse about your own.”
In true coming-of-age fashion, once Nadine begins to realize that her projections of the world around her – and particularly the people around her – are false, she actually starts to grow as a person.
“This age is interesting to me,” Craig said. “I think it’s that period where you’re shedding an old self and becoming new. I think on some level, we’re all doing that all the time. Anytime you come to a fork in the road or a new thing where you have to rediscover yourself, I think you’re coming of age.”
A Thousand Girls
One of the reasons why “Seventeen” works so well is because Steinfeld’s performance is complex enough to match the character of Nadine. Hardly a “likable” figure in the traditional sense, Nadine is hormonal and mercurial, self-centered and rude, and in possession of just terrible judgment. In short, she’s a teenager. But she’s also got a lot of pain going on behind that façade.
“We all have an inner asshole, and we all have ways in which we try to mask our hurt with different things,” Craig said. “I think it was just trying to get through the layers of it. That’s why you can forgive her and get on her team, because you know at the core [that] she’s a good soul who’s just trying to find her way.”
That kind of nuance is what’s missing from so many modern teen comedies, and while Craig set out to combat that kind of flat writing, she almost painted herself into a corner with her Nadine.
“I started to think, ‘I’ve written somebody nobody can play,'” she remembered of the casting process. “Or somebody would come in and you’re like, ‘I hate my character. I absolutely hate them. I do not want to see this movie, no one should ever want to see this movie.'”
Fortunately enough, Steinfeld changed all that.
“She came in, and it was like the skies opened up,” Craig said. “The thing I talk about with her a lot, is the effortlessness of her talent. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. She just shows up, and she’s talking, and then boom, she’s in it and she’s 150 percent in that character. She just turns it on.”
James L. Brooks to the Rescue
The actress wasn’t the only talent who helped bring Craig’s vision to the big screen. The film found an early backer in legendary filmmaker James L. Brooks, who produced the project. Craig, a longtime fan of Brooks’ work never expected that he would be interested in her film, much less that he would come on board as her mentor.
“I admire him creatively, literally more than anybody in the world,” Craig explained.
After writing the first draft of her script, Craig’s reps had the bright idea to send it to Brooks, in hopes that the producer behind such diverse projects as “The Simpsons” and “Jerry Maguire” would want to take a shot on the newbie director’s vision of what a modern teen comedy could be.
“When I wrote the script, I sat down with my reps and we said, ‘Let’s just take a shot. It’ll never happen, Kelly. It’ll never happen, so do not get your hopes up. We’ll let you take a shot.’ Then it ended up that he decided to buy it and to start the process of developing it,” Craig said.
The experience was formative for Craig, who credits Brooks for letting her in on what just might be the secret to his filmmaking success.
“One of the first things he said to me when we sat down was, ‘The first and most important thing we have to figure out is – and that you have to figure out for yourself is – what do you want to say about life with this story?'” she remembered.
Craig found the advice to be nothing short of groundbreaking.
“It was so nice to just have somebody say, ‘What do you want to explore? What hurts? What’s interesting to you? What’s worth spending your life on?'” she said. “That guided it to the point of making it, of really knowing what its soul was. It allowed me to just write honestly.”
Craig is hoping to use that lesson throughout her career, one that already includes at least one more project with Brooks, which the pair are working on now. Few things, however, will likely ever compare to “Seventeen.”
“The amazing thing in working on this film is that, I really got to tell a story I really care about,” Craig said. “With characters you really fall in love with and live with, there so much blood and sweat, and love that goes into the process of making something. I don’t think I can get into another one without neurotically caring in the same way.”
For a first feature, Craig has done pretty well for herself, and “The Edge of Seventeen” seems like the kind of high school-set film that can fit inside the same canon that guided the budding filmmaker when she was a teen herself.
“I didn’t set out to make a John Hughes film,” Craig laughed. “It was only just a thing in the back of my head, that those films did mean something to me, and still do. I hope this film can live on the shelf with films like those.”
“The Edge of Seventeen” world premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival as the festival’s closing night film. It opens in theaters on November 18.