There’s this thing you always hear as a writer: “Write what you know.” And while plenty of writers are able to switch skins and write about different kinds of characters, there’s something about a young woman’s coming-of-age tale that, well, kinda takes a woman to write.
Consider some of the best teen-girl-movies over the past few decades. Clueless was written and directed by Amy Heckerling (and, of course, based on original rom-com author Jane Austen’s Emma). Tiny Fey wrote the screenplay for Mean Girls. Juno was penned by the charming and offbeat Diablo Cody. Now another ten years has passed, and it’s time for the next moving-yet-funny take on a girl’s journey into womanhood. Cue The Edge of Seventeen, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig.
Craig’s definitely a Hollywood newcomer; she hasn’t written much, and this is her first time directing a feature. Yet her insight, empathy, and wit as a director is so noticeable in this film – especially as she partners with leading lady Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Romeo & Juliet), who plays the offbeat heroine Nadine. And in a way, Craig’s fresh perspective and lack of star-power make this kind of movie even more special.
The Edge of Seventeen hits all the classic markers of a solid coming-of-age film – the struggle of making friends, self-loathing, dealing with unwanted attention, desperation for wanted attention. But it’s also a movie tinged with real grief as Nadine deals with a devastating family death, and later tries to navigate a seemingly impassable rift with her best-and-only friend.
It’s definitely a modern diatribe on the struggles of seventeen. Nadine and her brother are hyper-aware of their single mom’s sex life. Facebook messages are dreamt of, sent, and then 100% regretted.
Steinfeld as Nadine fully takes hold of being unlikeable. She thinks of herself as awkward, but “obsessive” and “immature” might be better words. She might think of her foibles as endearing, but she doesn’t engender anywhere near the fondness I had for Juno in 2007. Still, somehow, she manages to elicit 100% of my sympathy (if not my empathy).
Because growing up is hard. All the time, in any era, and there are aspects of growing up in 2017 that honestly make it harder than it’s ever been. The embarrassment, the social pressure, the constant comparison of yourself to everyone else.
There’s one scene late in the film that highlights this pain and confusion. Nadine is about to get something she’s wanted the entire movie. But when it comes down to it – the object of her desire looks scarier than she had anticipated. She suddenly feels awkward, vulnerable and terrified. She learns that the joy-filled, lush fantasy doesn’t always translate to real life. That real human emotions complicate the best laid plans. It’s a really crushing but beautiful scene.
Two really bright spots in the movie, which contrast the darker stuff, are found in Nadine’s relationships with her professor Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, The Hunger Games) and classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto, The Unbidden). Mr. Bruner is a dry, sarcastic teacher Nadine often turns to for the attention she lacks in her social life. He eventually shows her how limited her perceptions of life truly are. Erwin teaches Nadine a similar lesson. At first, Nadine is annoyed by his obvious crush on her. But as she reluctantly becomes friends with this nerdy and adorable boy (who is clearly not what she thinks “her type” is) she realizes how much she misses by being so perpetually self-absorbed.
This was so familiar. I had something of this self-focus when I was seventeen. Edge made me remember just how annoying we were. Maybe that makes me a late-twenty-something who’s ten years too old for the movie but I kept thinking, over and over again, “I AM SO GLAD I’M NOT SEVENTEEN ANYMORE.”
At the time, I didn’t realize how distinct people are, and how much their surroundings, resources, and opportunities affect their lives and values. Like Nadine, I needed my assumptions challenged, so that I could start practicing real empathy and understanding for people who are different from me.
The Edge of Seventeen is a blast of nostalgia in that way. It’s a good reminder of how the world is filled with beautiful, complex humans. Sometimes it just takes a bit of growing up to notice them.