Welcome to this year’s one movie about how absolutely awful life is when you’re a teenaged girl. And if we’re only gonna get one a year — and that’s us being lucky — at least 2016’s is the spectacularly good The Edge of Seventeen.
Hailee Steinfeld (Barely Lethal, Pitch Perfect 2) is sharp and funny and shrewd as Nadine, a high-school junior in an unnamed American suburb who considers herself an “old soul” whom no one understands, whose existence is torture itself while everyone else is, clearly, living a nonstop party. And that was before her best (and only) friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), started dating her perfect and popular and oh-so-annoying older brother, senior Darian (Blake Jenner). Is there no end to this hell on earth? It’s sorta Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from Jeanie Bueller’s perspective, only without any playing of kooky hooky and with a whole lot more smacking down of self-centered adolescent angst to come.
It’s not just the flip side of Ferris that makes Edge feel a bit like a lost John Hughes teen comedy only just barely updated for the 21st century: though Nadine’s bumping-into-adulthood wakeup call will culminate in a sequence revolving around a texting accident, much of this could be taking place anytime between the 1980s and today. The tools of adolescence may have changed in the last 30 years, but the emotional experience hasn’t. Director and screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig — who wrote 2009’s Post Grad, which was an object lesson in how not to tell stories about young women in the same way that Edge is a master class in getting it right — smartly tweaks the limitations of a low budget into that timeless vibe. Nadine’s wardrobe has a lot of retro secondhand stuff (as distinct from pricey vintage, that is), the kids all drive beat-up hand-me-down cars (if they drive at all), and the school’s decor (and equipment) doesn’t look like it has been updated since Reagan was president. This ain’t no upper-upper-middle-class Hollywood gloss on high school but something that will be instantly recognizable to anyone under 50 as close to the ugly mundanity of slogging through life as a teenager.
(It’s Nadine’s love of all things 80s — like that hideous jacket she’s wearing in the image above — that leads her to conclude that she’s an old soul. Which will make anyone who actually remembers being a teen in the 80s feel genuinely old. And then this will make it worse: The distance in time between Nadine today and John Hughes’s comedies is the exact same distance in time between iconic high-school comedy Back to the Future and the 1950s world it harked back to. So for the likes of Nadine, the 80s look as quaint and amusing as the 50s do to me. Ugh.)
But it’s the universality of Nadine’s roller-coaster melodrama that is so perfectly pitched here… and much of what she suffers and learns from and grows up through are the kinds of deeply personal teen traumas that boys as well as girls can empathize with. It’s really important that we get movies that focus on the uniquely female aspects of growing up, as we did with last year’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. But it’s also vital that boys learn that girls are not so different from them, and that girls’ experiences are human experiences. Here Nadine is a giant steaming puddle of self-hatred combined with an inflated sense of self-importance, of the aching awkwardness that blows the smallest of slights up into the biggest of disasters, of cynicism clashing with optimism, of an unreasonable inability to accept change combined with the fervent desire for everything to be different.
These are things we all cringe to recall about our teen years (which makes this movie perfectly enjoyable by everyone who has already gotten past this, to remind us that being young is horrible and that we should cherish our age and acquired wisdom). The title of the film doesn’t refer so much to Nadine’s age — she is already 17 as the movie opens, not merely verging on it — but to the edge in a more dangerous way: the bleeding edge, an edge you fall off. This is all about the bite, the sting, the agony of shedding that narcissism and ending the pity party, which we all have to do without anyone ever telling us how much better we’ll feel on the other side of it. The Edge of Seventeen is bursting with the generosity that only that hindsight can allow: perhaps the most beautiful and amazing thing about the movie is how Nadine is simultaneously nasty and unpleasant yet also deeply sympathetic. We feel her pain, because we remember it, and we understand and appreciate her triumph even more than she does.