For more than thirty years, the John Hughes canon has served as the paragon of teen movies. Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and the rest may not have been perfect (let’s face it─The Breakfast Club is overly melodramatic and hopelessly cliched), but by and large they worked and survived, because they finally made teenagers seem like real people with real issues and emotions.
In the years since, there have been a handful of films to give today’s generation their own voice, including Easy A, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Juno. Add The Edge of Seventeen to that list. In fact, push it past them all, straight to the top.
Written and directed by first-timer Kelly Fremon Craig, Seventeen lands a knockout punch right from the opening scene, as a frazzled Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) sprints to her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and announces that she’s going to end her life. She won’t jump in front of a bus, though, because she doesn’t want people to have to see it, so maybe just a truck or a U-Haul. Something quick. And she has to make sure she actually dies, because if she’s only maimed, that won’t help anyone.
From there we backtrack to discover what brought Nadine to this spot. Not only is she a perpetual loner and put-upon last cause, she only has one real friend in the world, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who Nadine wakes up one morning to find in bed with her year-older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Friendship over, sibling relationship over. The end.
But we’re actually just getting going. The crackerjack script is full of so many breathtakingly honest and simple moments, that Seventeen rings true for anyone who has ever strolled high school hallways, particularly the unfriendly and intimidating ones. Nadine, though, isn’t a victim. Thanks to Steinfeld’s sublime performance, she’s a real, independent, and, potty-mouthed young woman–like, well, most kids. This isn’t a case of Craig’s screenplay following the old High School Movie playbook; we’re in refreshing territory here, with true-to-life characters and situations and conflicts. Seventeen doesn’t ever dwell on how the pretty people are the popular ones or the nerds are the outcasts, instead offering a hilarious look at Nadine and her raging dumpster fire of a life, as she calls it.
A horribly inadvertent text message, an unrequited crush, and an awkward pseudo-date with a lovestruck admirer are just some of the things that populate Nadine’s angst-filled days, and without a best friend with whom to tackle them and unable to rely on her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick), who is dealing with her own dumpster fire, Nadine turns to Mr. Bruner, the coolest high school teacher this side of Mean Girls‘ Ms. Norbury. Their bond is instant and marvelously dry and forms the backbone of Seventeen. It’s a give-and-take-and-give for the ages, with Steinfeld and Harrelson playing off each other as if they’re life-long friends.
There are so many times The Edge of Seventeen could have taken the lazy way, going the predictable path of high school tropes, but much more often than not it goes its own, often very funny, way, cementing its status as the best and brightest coming-of-age flick in a good long while. If I were the letter-grading type, I’d give it an easy A, but I’m not, so I won’t. Instead it gets…