Here’s how I know “The Edge of Seventeen” is destined to be a teenage classic: director Kelly Fremon Craig isn’t trying to be John Hughes or Wes Anderson. She isn’t trying to shove what it’s like to be a millennial today down our throats. Her film is hardly nostalgic for some golden age of culture. No one in her movie is a caricature or a stereotype. And her main character isn’t obscenely quirky and trying to be “Juno.”
“The Edge of Seventeen” may not be the best teen coming of age story in recent memory, or the funniest, but by not trying to be a callback to anything else, it’s perfectly at home in its generation.
When Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) storms into her teacher’s empty classroom during his lunch, she collapses into one of the desks exasperated and spurts out what sounds like a prepared diatribe about how she’s going to kill herself. Her teacher takes a long pause and a deep breath before answering her. But because her teacher is actually Woody Harrelson, he slowly works into what sounds like a profound speech and life lesson before teasing her by suggesting, hey, maybe he’ll kill himself too. “It sounds relaxing.”
Fremon Craig’s opening takes the stuffiness out of the proceedings. Nadine isn’t actually going to try and kill herself by the movie’s end, but she’s no doubt got problems. Steinfeld plays her with sputtering urgency, side-eye sarcasm and world-weary exhaustion. That’s a lot of burden to place on a 17-year-old. Her friendly dad died a few years earlier, but she’s moved on to using it as an excuse to get out of class, something Mr. Bruner (Harrelson) has seen before. Her brother Darian (“Everybody Wants Some’s” Blake Jenner) is a perfect, handsome specimen, but it’s obvious pretty quickly that he’s actually a nice guy, that when the two argue they do so with the loving eyes of many siblings. But Nadine is so self-absorbed, that when her best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) ends up dating Darian, Nadine breaks off their friendship.
Nadine’s a wonderful character. She’s such a stress ball, paranoid, frenetic and awkward, but still self-aware of her flaws. She’s sarcastic, but not snarky or smug. And while she has self-esteem issues that she has to grow out of, she’s not pathetic either. And the rest of Fremon Craig’s character have the same tempered dimensions to them, never turning into broad caricatures even if they’re familiar character types.
What’s more, “The Edge of Seventeen” casually exists in 2016 without trying to be a statement on what it’s like to Be Here Now. The kids text and go on Facebook, and it even gets Nadine into trouble when she actually sends a passion-fueled message to her crush, but they’re not buried in their phones. There are no cute pop-up text bubbles or emojis on display here. The film’s love interest is Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a good-looking but somewhat nerdy Asian guy, but Fremon’s film doesn’t live in some post-racial world either. When they’re on a date that maybe isn’t really a date, Nadine speculates what his parents must be like but jokingly walks back her comment as “partly racist.”
Love it or hate it (and I love it), “Juno” has set the template for many teen movies since 2007, with each trying to embrace or avoid the quirkiness and twee, indie spirit that won that screenplay an Oscar. “The Edge of Seventeen” may be its closest descendant, even if Nadine resists many of the oddball quirks of Juno MacGuff. “The Edge of Seventeen” also avoids the baggage of abortion and parenting and lasers in on a middle-class white kid just trying to improve her life. That may not be groundbreaking or worth a bunch of think pieces, but…”it sounds relaxing.’
3 ½ stars