Movie “coming-of-age stories” are one of those tropes that many film fans just can’t seem to evolve beyond. I admit I thought I had, but then I saw The Edge of Seventeen, and I have to admit that it seems the place in my heart John Hughes’ movies so effectively touched so many times is still there inside me. The best of these flicks are capable of transporting we old farts back to a time of life that many of us now view through rose-colored glasses. High school was never easy, with those four mid-teenage years representing a cauldron of raging hormones, exploding insecurity and academic pressure. Not only has that not changed, I’m sure it’s even harder now than it was when I endured it. It’s a wonder that anyone survives them.
With a smart, perceptive script from first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig and a wonderful lead perfor-mance by Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen re-minds us of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this life-phase through which we all must pass. The movie gives Steinfeld a chance to equal her brilliant turn from 2010's True Grit, and she most certainly succeeds, portraying 17-year old Nadine, an 11th-grader who, in typical Molly Ringwald-fashion, can't seem to connect with people her own age. To add insult to injury, she has only one best friend named Krista (played by Haley Lu Richardson), who through a late-teen version of a Series of Unfortunate Events, ends up falling for Nadine’s popular star-jock brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Feeling a sense of betrayal only a teenaged girl could feel, and getting no sympathy from her seemingly bipolar mother (Kyra Sedgwick), she ends up going to one her teachers (Woody Harrelson), whose apparent lack of empathy is all the more hilarious because of its subtlety.
Oh, sure, there are other Sixteen Candles-ish tropes here, such as the borderline nerdy guy who in smitten by our heroine, but Nadine is so wrapped up in her own problems and superficial lust for another dreamboat that she can’t completely see it. Nadine’s actually kind of a brat (yep, that feels true to the age, too), but Steinfeld’s charisma and the script’s humor somehow make her misdirected rage and blundering attempts at independence endearing. It reminds us of how the brave leaps and big stumbles every teen makes can sting, as she tries (we tried) to figure out how to be herself (ourselves).
The biggest key to the film’s success is that Fremon Craig’s script and direction don’t depend on slapstick to propel the story. It also helps that the direction is conservative, not drowning the screenplay in references and teenage lingo (I’m looking at you, Juno). Her script doesn’t adhere to the clichés, but softens them and makes them a bit more real and believable. There’s a comfort in the familiarity on which a coming-of-age story such as this thrives, but that comfort is totally dependent on our being made to care for the characters, and I never got the impression that any of these kids were complete characitures, even when the story sort of demanded that they be one.
The ad campaign for the film touts it as the next The Breakfast Club or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and while those compari-sons certainly aren’t off base, I think any conver-sation about this movie should be more about Hailee Steinfeld and how marvelous she is in this role. Of course, the rest of the cast are also quite good (being the old fart I am, I had no clue Blake Jenner was anything other than a reality-show joke -- I was floored at how good he is in this film), but this film is fueled by the central performance. As Nadine comes to grips with everyone else moving on, with the whole world not being about her, she moves on from being a little annoying to completely sympathetic. Steinfeld handles this transition wonderfully.
It’s a shame a film such as The Edge of Seventeen is slapped with an R-rating, the justification for this be-ing a few “F”-bombs and sexual innuendoes, most of which are seen in larger quantities in other far-less meaningful PG-13 teen comedies. I would hope parents could (and would) see this film with their teenagers. Maybe the old fogies could be re-minded how difficult this time in their children’s lives might be, and the teens might see that there is hope they’ll survive the Hell of Adolescence.