If you grew up in the 1980s, John Hughes probably played a significant role in both your film viewing experiences and in the development of your personal sense of self. Like nobody else before him, Hughes created teenage characters that seemed real and with whom the target audience could relate. His films (Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) were so effective at capturing the realities of the youth experience for so many people that he remains a revered figure today. I mean, I find it hard to remember things that happened last week, but I still vividly recall every moment from the The Breakfast Club, which is something I can’t say about many other films. Since then, too many teen films have simply been an orgy of sex, booze and debauchery; provocative rather than personal and lacking insight into the emotional and psychological maelstrom that comes with being a teenager.
With a mix of biting humour and angst-filled moments, The Edge of Seventeen emerges as a teen dramedy very much in the Hughes mould, with myriad moments that are relatable to anybody struggling to forge their own identity and find their place in the ruthless, pressure-cooker world that is high school. Written and directed by Kelly Fremon, The Edge of Seventeen is a smart, sassy exploration of a particular type of teenage experience, that of somebody who struggles to find their place within the established social order. Of course, not every teenager is an outsider with few friends, but there are certainly plenty who will be able to relate to Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and her feeling of disconnection. Despite being smart and attractive (if not necessarily mature), most days are miserable for Nadine, a social outcast who spends more time with her teacher than she does with anybody else during the course of her school day. At home, her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is the golden child in the eyes of her frazzled widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and when her bestie Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) embarks on romantic relationship with Darian, Nadine is apoplectic and cast asides the lifelong friendship, sending her into a spiral of self-loathing.
There is so much to like about this film. From Steinfeld’s performance, to the inclusion of an Asian love interest whilst avoiding any of the cultural clichés that usually abound in such instances, to the positive portrayal of the teaching profession through Woody Harrelson’s Mr Bruner. Even Hughes was guilty of demonising teachers with Paul Gleason’s somewhat despicable Richard Vernon in Breakfast Club, and there hasn’t been much improvement since (Bad Teacher, Election), but Bruner is everything a teacher should be; he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he takes an interest in the lives of his students beyond the delivery of curriculum. After all, how can you teach them if you don’t know them? Whilst Bruner is sympathetic to Nadine’s struggle to fit in, he does not pander to her melodramatic histrionics. He treats her with respect and advice proffered is served with a good dollop of sardonic wit. Needless to say, Bruner is exactly the type of teacher we need more of and exactly the type of teacher that education authorities (here in Queensland at least) would deem unsuitable.
Steinfeld is marvellous as a young woman who is a mass of contradictions. She is intelligent and confident yet deeply insecure, cynical yet hopelessly romantic and well-spoken yet prone to outbursts of swearing. In essence, she is a typical teenager whose mood can fluctuate from happy-go-lucky to miserable in the merest of moments. Her feeling of betrayal is understandable given that Darian is already revered by all and sundry and Krista is her only friend and has been since they were very young. As such, the blossoming relationship between Darian and Krista only serves as a daily reminder of just how isolated Nadine is from the world around her. Feeling a sense of abandonment and betrayal, she turns to the laid-back Bruner as a sounding board for her myriad insecurities and the interplay between these two is terrific. An insightfully scripted coming-of-age comedy, The Edge of Seventeen is a remarkably assured directorial debut that delivers a fresh, incisive, powerful, poignant and amusingly precise depiction of the emotional rollercoaster that is life as a teenager.