In the beginning, a bespectacled Chicagoan named John Hughes looked upon the landscape of teen movies and decided that they were lacking in characters that resembled actual adolescents. And the Lord did then give us Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, and lo, it was good. You can find fault with these films (three words: Long Duk Dong), but Hughes singularly set the gold standard for the genre. Many have followed his template since then. They often fell short.
The Edge of Seventeen announces its claim-staking bid from its opening scene, in which a furrowed-brow, funky-dressed high school student named Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) plops down in front of her English teacher (Woody Harrelson). She announces she's committing suicide. He counters that he's just finished penning his own fare-thee-well note; also he's on his break, so please GTFO. We quickly learn that this perpetually misunderstood misfit has a smart-ass answer and an eyeroll for everything, some long-shot romantic longings and an older brother (Everybody Wants Some's Blake Jenner) who's both a favorite child and a campus Jock-God. Cliques are abound. Adults are absurd, absent or aloof. You can see the needle on the Hughesometer tipping into the red.
And then, as viewers get to know Nadine, meet her best – and only – friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and watch as one drunken night ends with our heroine accidentally catching her brother and her closest confidante en handjob delecto, you start to sense something shifting. Nadine is naturally furious over what she feels is a massive betrayal and demands that Krista choose their childhood bond over the call of hormones; the me-or-him decision does not end favorably. She starts to toy with the feelings of Erwin (Hayden Szeto), an adorkable, smitten animator who sits next to her in class. (If his Korean-American heritage isn't partially an apologia for that aforementioned cringeworthy Asian caricature in Sixteen Candles, the fully-fleshed-out nice-guy character we see here still doubles as a much-needed antidote.) She acts out, becomes self-centered and self-righteous, behaves kindly, behaves badly and bumps against the bar of how narcissistic a protagonist can be without losing an audience – in short, she's exactly like a real 17-year-old. You realize that the movie is not just a superior model of teen comedy; it may, in fact, be the equal of those beloved Eighties touchstones.
Part of this is thanks to the way that first-time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig refuses to sand the roughness away from the angry young woman at the movie's center, letting Nadine fuck up repeatedly without ever turning her into a teen-angst martyr or a toothless, Afterschool Special take on troubled adolescence. She's got a few veteran hands in her corner – the sight of James L. Brooks' name in the credits is not surprising, given the mixture of laughter and pathos – but this is her movie, and like last year's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, you can sense the presence of XX chromosomes behind the camera. There's a been-there feeling threaded throughout Edge that almost gives it a sense of emotional reportage at times. Yes, it says, this is what it felt like to be a teenage girl caught up in the agony and the ecstasy of trying on identities, and discovering that the emo pin-up you pine for is a creep, and when losing your best friend was worse than the end of the world. It still feels like this. Only the outfits and humiliation-by-accidentally-sexting-your-crush have changed.
But the real powerhouse behind this beautiful, painful remembrance of those "wonder years" is Steinfeld, long past her precocious True Grit days. Thanks to her high-ranking Taylor Swift squad membership and side career as a pop songbird, you might have forgotten not only that she was also a working actor but potentially a major screen talent. That's confirmed beyond a doubt here: This is a performer who knows exactly how to layer a laugh line as well as sell it, how to do cynicism and the vulnerability behind it, how to seem mature beyond her age one second and lost in the thicket of her fading childhood years the next. Steinfeld can trade barbs with Harrelson, perfectly cast as Weary Grown-Up With Hidden Gold Heart; she can do awkward, flirty, sassy and screwball (her reaction to a pre-date smelling of her pits is Swiss-clock comic-timed); and, in one of the movie's best scenes, she can communicate the crumbling heartbreak of watching Krista get caught up among the Cool Girls without saying a single word. If nothing else, The Edge of Seventeen should make Steinfeld a shoo-in for the teen movie young-restless-and-hilarious Hall of Fame. At the very least, the humanity she gives this young woman on the verge helps the movie teeter on the edge of being an instant classic.