It’s almost reflex to liken any sweet and sour, teen coming of age movie to the work of John Hughes. Few of those actually fare well in comparison, though. There’s a reason Hughes’ work in the genre had such an impact, not only to the young audiences of their time but to those who, like me, came to them a decade later and to those who are no doubt twisting and shouting with Ferris or raising a fist with Bender for the first time right now. Unlike other screenwriters, Hughes didn’t write teenagers patronizingly or condescendingly. Nor did he write them as they actually are. Instead, he wrote teenagers as they wanted to see themselves. With this in mind, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen may be one of the few films worthy of being mentioned alongside Hughes’ work.
At first, The Edge of Seventeen perhaps appears to be a direct Hughes homage, as Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) runs through the halls of her school in retro sneakers and windbreaker. But soon enough, smartphones and computers make an appearance. This isn’t a period piece. It’s merely a universally relatable story of a girl who doesn’t fit in to begin with falling out with her only real friend and going into a tailspin.
Timeless though it may be, Craig’s film is certainly not without a sense of place. Along with cinematographer Doug Emmett, Craig gives us an autumnal American Northwest that feels like the worst of the unhappy school day doldrums, not yet cold enough to be bundle and huddle with friends and family but too damp and brisk to be warm on your own. The weather, just like her social anonymity, has Nadine feeling trapped.
These days, at least, kids have ways to communicate no matter how sealed off they might be. Social media is crucial to the plot of The Edge of Seventeen but it also may represent the movie’s weakest points. In truth, I am not particularly well-equipped to call shenanigans on the depiction of Facebook but a couple of things don’t pass the sniff test. First off, Nadine’s crush (Alexander Calvert) has profile photos that appear to be professional head shots. Second, and more importantly, there’s no way the “Send” and “Cancel” buttons would ever be so close to one another. It’s almost as if they want a humiliating faux pas to take place!
Of course, this is nitpicking and the best thing about a really good movie is that such minor quibbles have a much tougher time making a dent. Facebook verisimilitude is no match for emotional verisimilitude. The Edge of Seventeen has that to spare, almost literally in that it’s the rare high school movie to extend its sympathy even to the popular kids who don’t grow up to become screenwriters.
Though the pointless R rating means that fewer teens will get to see The Edge of Seventeen than should, those who do will recognize the rhythms of their own lives in the way these characters suck every bit of freedom out of the sporadic moments of it that are offered to them and the way an apocalypse can happen in the space between school bells. And we can all, regardless of age, relate to Nadine when she says, “I think some deranged part of me likes thinking I’m the only one with real problems.” That’s the part that doesn’t fully go away, even after high school graduation.