By Josiah Wampfler
The high school comedy has become sort of a genre unto itself. You have classic films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club and Heathers. Then you have more contemporary films like Superbad, Mean Girls and Easy A. All of these comedies chronicle the adventures of high school teens, but they also have another similarity: They are all directed by men. In fact, if you do a quick Google search for “high school comedies,” of all the films you will see at the top of the page, only two are directed by women: Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless. Which is not to say that the rest of the films in the “genre” are inherently bad for being directed by a man or that they treat their female characters poorly (though some definitely do). Several, including Easy A, Mean Girls, and Dazed and Confused actually have really good female characters. But, the newest edition to the genre, The Edge of Seventeen, presents the case for why it is so important to have more women writing and directing these films about some of the most formative years of girls’ lives.
The Edge of Seventeen is the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig who, knowing her film would be compared to the films of John Hughes, told Indiewire she certainly didn’t set off to make a John Hughes film. She said, “It was only just a thing in the back of my head, that those films did mean something to me, and still do. I hope this film can live on the shelf with films like those.”
And, by my estimation, Craig succeeds in spades. The Edge of Seventeen is the perfect mix of hilarious comedy and genuinely touching drama that can easily stand alongside the films of John Hughes and other great films in the genre. The characters are fantastically complex human beings backed up by truly wonderful performances and a solid script. It is a film that truly sent me on an emotional roller-coaster. And one that I hope to embark on once again very soon.
The film centers around Nadine, played by the incredibly talented Hailee Steinfeld, who, at 17, is not only dealing with the normal struggles of adolescence, but also with the death of her father three years prior. Her family life is strained as her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is emotionally unavailable and clearly favors her brother (Blake Jenner), who seems frustratingly perfect. Add to that an event toward the beginning of the film that throws her only real friendship into question and you have one troubled young woman.
Yet many of Nadine’s problems do appear to stem from her own actions or are further exacerbated by them. She is the weird outcast with strange fashion sense that probably projects too much confidence for her own good and she talks A LOT. And she just makes some extremely poor decisions throughout the film as she trusts the wrong people, lets jealousy take hold of her and lashes out at others. But Nadine never becomes annoying or hard to root for because it is all of these very apparent flaws that make her so human. And Steinfeld’s performance is also remarkably great.
Throughout the film, Steinfeld has what I refer to as Wilder eyes, which is taken from the late Gene Wilder and the incredible sadness he could put behind his eyes throughout many of his roles. For Wilder, it was what drove much of the drama in his performances, keying the audience into some latent emotional trauma within, but he also used it to drive the comedy as well. So too does Steinfeld use her eyes in The Edge of Seventeen to drive home both the drama and the comedy. With Nadine, the eyes are what connect us to her character. Behind them we see a genuine human being who is trying to do the right thing, despite the numerous mistakes she makes. It is a classic case of a good person doing the wrong things as the audience can only watch and root for them to course correct.
The film is also bolstered by an excellent ensemble cast as well, not least of which is Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s teacher, Mr. Bruner. Much of the film’s comedy comes from this relationship as Mr. Bruner is a foil to Nadine’s excessive talkativeness with both his slow manner of speaking and his sarcasm. Yet, again, the drama creeps in as we see the sarcasm and aloofness of the character peel back ever so slightly to reveal a man who truly does care. And I would be remiss if I did not mention relative newcomer Hayden Szeto who plays a love interest of sorts. His awkward, shyness is hilarious, yet, as with all the other characters, his humanity still finds its way through the comedy.
Kelly Fremon Craig, through her stellar script, sure-handed direction and perfect casting has truly delivered one of the best additions to the high school comedy genre. She has said that she did extensive research into the subject matter, talking to many teenagers about their experiences in high school, and it shows. The Edge of Seventeen is an extremely truthful and powerful portrayal of what it is to be a teenager. It deals with themes that we all have some experience with: death, growing older, responsibility, jealousy, the difficulties and joys of many types of relationships, depression and much more. And it does all of this while also being an extremely funny movie. That is quite an achievement in my book.