Few high school films in the last decade understand what it’s like to be a teenager in this day and age; either they invest too much time in a ridiculously clichéd love story that fails to see the reality of teenage awkwardness (think “A Walk to Remember”). Or they try too hard to imitate real “hip” teens that they end up coming off as laughably incorrect (think “She’s The Man”). “The Edge of Seventeen,” however, hits adolescence on the nose; it portrays teenage life how it really is, with all of its angst, self-absorbed decisions and social suffering.
But this comes at a cost. Marketed as a film reminiscent of John Hughes’ iconic high school films from the ‘80s, “The Edge of Seventeen” is disappointingly similar to your average coming-of-age high school film. The plot is simple: it follows 17-year-old student Nadine Byrd, (Hailee Steinfeld) as she loses friends, has her heart broken, struggles with loneliness, matures, etc. — if you’ve seen any high school film before, you know what you’re in for.
The amount of sarcastic retorts from Steinfeld and hilarious moments from Woody Harrelson — who plays her U.S. history teacher Mr. Bruner — should place this film comfortably in the genre of comedy. In fact, this film is ridiculously funny — there were many moments where it was hard not to crack a smile or actually laugh out loud, and this can be attributed to jokes that go just far enough (nothing too explicit, but still raunchy).
Part of what makes the humor in this film work is that it is grounded in a sense of reality, brought about with writing that imitates real life conversations teens have. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig impressively portrays the modern angst of high school just right, with an understanding of the dramatic extremes people experience in high school.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Hailee Steinfeld said, “This story is a true interpretation of what being a teenager really feels like today. And the films that John Hughes made … are too, but they don’t necessarily speak to the today part that this movie does.”
Craig gets the little details right, too, which allows this film to not only portray teen angst right, but to portray teen angst as it is today. In a party scene, the music selection was on-point — with what teenagers actually listen to, like Anderson .Paak and Cage the Elephant. In another relatable scene, Nadine is laying on her couch lazily after school, watching “Futurama.”
Steinfeld explained, in regards to Craig, “she spent hours and hours and hours on end interviewing high school students and talking to them about their life … there was something about her that was able to pull out all of these experiences that happened to form this character’s story.”
The comedic moments are punctured with the dramatic ones. There are hints of the darker reality teens go through, as Nadine is tormented by a broken family that leaves her unable to fit comfortably in social situations. This, along with her familial issues, appears to also affect her mentally. In one scene, she takes an antidepressant and just lays in bed, and this is a shocking picture in an otherwise uplifting film.
Speaking to going from comedic moments to dramatic ones, Steinfeld commented, “the dramaticness is always there; she just tries to mask it with sarcasm.”
While Craig is able to hit those comedic scenes extremely well, she falters just as much in the dramatic ones. These issues are introduced and forgotten, and never thoroughly explored. Her father’s death is alluded to several times, but it feels more like a cheap way to cause an emotional response in the audience than an authentic issue for Nadine. The dialogue is awful in these scenes as well, relying too heavily on cliché. In one instance, her brother Darian, played by Blake Jenner, tells her “Life isn’t fair.” Wow. Thank you for that brilliant advice, Darian.
Steinfeld is what makes this film work — her ability to go from humorous sarcastic comments to honest, brutal emotional moments is spellbinding. She is complemented perfectly by Woody Harrelson, who uplifts every scene he’s in with hi s gift of ensuring laughter from the audience because of his savagely blunt remarks.
As the interview neared its end, Steinfeld commented, “If our generation sees this movie and feels like it’s their story, that they get to really call this film their own, that’s what I’m really hoping for.”
Even amid the many issues this film faces, it’s undoubtedly an engaging experience. It’s hard not to see bits of yourself in Nadine, and it’s even harder not to laugh when she mimes imitating giving her friend’s dad a handjob. It’s these small moments of glee that allow this film to succeed, and while “The Edge of Seventeen” is no Hughes’ film, it doesn’t need to be — it’ll find its place in people’s hearts, anyhow.