"Oh, what a lovely film. I was almost hugging myself as I watched it." Roger Ebert begins his Almost Famous review in this way. I imagine he would have said something similar after watching The Edge of Seventeen.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a square peg of a teenager. Normally this is a tough proposition to accept when the film stars an incredibly beautiful actress like Steinfeld, but she is just so damn good that you buy it immediately. She has a slightly older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), whose seeming perfection irritates her endlessly and delights their harried mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick). Four years after their father died suddenly of a heart attack, Nadine is barely keeping her life together. She fights back her obvious depression with her cynical worldview and quick tongue, helped only by the support of her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and a teacher who shares her penchant for sarcasm (Woody Harrelson).
This fragile balance is thrown into disarray when a casual flirtation between Krista and Darian turns into a full-on relationship: Nadine can't handle it. She begins butting heads with her mother even worse than before, and her hidden lust for a local bad boy starts to out itself in embarrassing ways. John Hughes, welcome to 2016.
The Edge of Seventeen, the feature debut of writer-director Kelly Fremon, is one of the year's best films. Produced on a budget by James L. Brooks, the movie carries that director's trademark humanism and sense of the absurdity of day-to-day life. But Fremon brings a female point-of-view that feels urgently necessary. There is a precedent for women to make films in this specific genre, but it happens far too infrequently.
It is also a tightly scripted comedy, an art form that is increasingly rare in a milieu of improvisatory rambling, established by the Judd Apatow brand. I laughed many, many times during this movie, but also was in tears by the end. It's moments of gravitas—sparingly and effectively used—hit hard, earned as they are by the excellent characterization that precedes them.
Nadine is difficult, like most adolescent people. She is crass, quick to anger, impulsive, judgmental and narcissistic. But she is also lovable, whip-smart, hilarious and fragile. If there were a TV show about her, she would land a thirty-minute slot on HBO. In fact, I would love to continue to see her life play out because she is so vividly conceived and portrayed by Steinfeld. If the film has a weakness, it is that it resolves at all. By any right this should be an ongoing series.
It wont be, though, because not many people have gone to see it. At time of writing, this film has grossed $14 million against a $9 million budget, so the film is technically a success. But these figures are far from a guarantee that similar movies will be made, or even that Fremon will continue to get work (her other credit is as a writer on the misconceived Alexis Bledel vehicle, Post Grad). If the bar of success for a teen film was set by The Fault in Our Stars at over $300 million, what chance does this movie have?
To paraphrase Alonso Duralde regarding the similarly under-appreciated Queen of Katwe (which I regret not seeing), you can't be mad at Hollywood for not making great movies like The Edge of Seventeen if you refuse to vote with your money. If you know a teenager, have been one or have one of your own, go see this movie.