Every generation needs a defining teen movie, and “The Edge of Seventeen” just might be that film for this generation. The icing on the cake is that it’ll likely appeal even more to older audiences who can look back on their teenage years with a mix of fondness, sympathy and embarrassment. Female filmmakers are often behind some of the best teen classics — “Clueless,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Juno” and “Mean Girls” — and “The Edge of Seventeen” enters this echelon as the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig, who also wrote the screenplay.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as the misanthropic Nadine, a misfit who’s never found her tribe, aside from her only friend, Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson), a ray of sunshine and goodness. When Krista collides romantically with Nadine’s hunky, golden-boy older brother, Darien (Blake Jenner), Nadine is thrown into a suicidal spiral, a spinout of epic proportions. Because in high school, the social stakes are always that high.
But Nadine’s snarky and profoundly salty attitude is rooted in real pathos and tragedy. She feels unrooted and isolated, battering futilely against her flighty mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and seemingly perfect brother. But the script makes it clear that her self-destructive and jealous lashing out comes from a place of real insecurity and self-loathing.
There are a few bright spots in Nadine’s tornado of angst. She enjoys a sardonic rapport with her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who meets her with the same amount of sarcasm and vitriol that she spews. Their interactions are some of the best of the energetically wordy screenplay. She also finds a new friend in the adorkable Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who is just about as socially awkward as she is, but a port in the storm when she needs it most. Szeto is just so funny and charming on screen that it feels like watching a star being born.
Nadine’s selfishness can be trying, but it’s very, very real, and “The Edge of Seventeen” never lets her off the hook when she turns her issues into excuses that she milks for all their worth. And her eventual redemption is well-earned. The sharply written, potty-mouthed comedy isn’t all-too dark, but the lightness is tinged with a sense of realistic edginess that makes the story feel whole and relatable. Teenagers are very strange and dramatic creatures after all.
The film is anchored by the delightful Steinfeld, who makes Nadine a high school hero for the history books. She’s a chameleonic performer; yes, that pop music glamazon storming up the charts is the very same painfully awkward pimpled adolescent, and subsequent high school rebel in nerd-chic, sporting thrifted jackets and high tops. Richardson and Jenner are equally good as the suns that orbit the black hole of Nadine.
“The Edge of Seventeen” takes teenagers seriously and meets them on their level, but it also expects the best from them — to be good people, responsible and respectful, even when the greatest of embarrassments rain down (can you say “text I didn’t mean to send”?). Even terrible teens deserve to be treated with a healthy dose of love, support and a whole lot of humor. It’s a message that bears repeating, and “The Edge of Seventeen” proves to be a new classic that bears many repeat viewings.
The Edge of Seventeen
Rated: R for sexual content, language and some drinking — all involving teens. Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner. Director: Kelly Fremon Craig. Running time: 104 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 14, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.