‘Coming of age’ films are almost uniform in their themes, mostly dealing with the transition between idealistic notions of youth and the realities of adulthood. The Last American Virgin (1982) kicked off what is arguably the golden era of for the genre, led chiefly by John Hughes and films like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is a successor to this legacy, but is also an original and honest portrayal of a teen in the 21st century.
After 17-year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) dramatically threatens to kill herself to her laid-back teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s film goes back to tell us how we got there. Nadine was a loner child, with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) favouring her golden older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Following the death of her father, Nadine’s only solace is her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), at least until the latter becomes involved with Darian.
Debut director Craig has crafted a genuinely funny film about the awkwardness of youth, one that is both familiar and very specific to contemporary teens. “Don’t be so weird,” Nadine instructs herself in front of the bathroom mirror, and while the character is hyper-emotional, it’s a speech we’ve all given ourselves at one point or another. From physical gracelessness, sexting, the girlfriend codes, and a nice bit about teenage boys and entitlement, EDGE OF SEVENTEEN speaks with the non-judgmental voice of its demographic, and never talks down to the audience.
Steinfeld, who has been busy for the last few years in music and film, makes good on the promise of her True Grit role, earnestly playing the everygirl in a way that never feels like performance. Her counterpoint in the surly Harrelson is a laconic gem, the voice of the older members of the audience and what anybody over a certain age is thinking about the Millennial generation. Sedgwick is the flip side of this coin, one that hopefully gives the target demo more insight into their parental units. Major props also needs to be given to the costume department, especially Nadine’s wilfully bad outfits.
Despite the title, EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is blessedly not an ‘edgy’ teen comedy, but it is an honest one. Sex looms large in their world, but this is far from American Pie. There’s drama, but no real urgency to the narrative, and it’s a refreshing change from the ubiquitous time-based teen sex comedies. With real emotional hits, even the slightly twee ending can’t taint one of the most authentic youth comedies of recent memory.