High school movies, with some exceptions, are a tough genre to make truly great. That’s because since the days of John Hughes, and probably earlier, high school films are made as much by cliches that the audience have come to anticipate than anything wholly unique. We get to see the campus, the teachers, the cliques, boys, girls, nerds, jocks, etc. There will inevitably be some kind of awkward romance and coming-of-age tribulation. By the time you have some token nostalgia for your own high school days – or connect the dots that “this is kind of like the Breakfast Club” – you missed on any kind of storytelling.
Kelly Fremon Craig’s “Edge of Seventeen”, already destined to be one of the most underrated movies of 2016 at least in part due to the familiarity of its setting, avoids generic pitfalls by focusing on strong original characters, an organic plot flow based on an acute understanding of interpersonal relationships, and a sharp sense of humor.
All of those rambling bullet points are typified by the quality leading performance of Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine, a socially awkward high schooler who is clinging to her small social bubble and to her right to dislike most of the people around her. In a movie co-produced by “The Simpsons” stalwarts and general witty dialogue overseers James L. Brooks and Richard Sakai of Gracie Films, Nadine could easily fall in line as a well written cartoon character, angrily speaking her mind even when she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Avoiding the inauthentic cliches of antagonism via a bully or a love triangle, Nadine’s main obstacles are her unwillingness to deal with both people and change. Easily relatable to literally almost everyone.
It’s a real credit to the story’s depth to not just present change, but to make it wholly understandable to the audience, while avoiding plodding emotional dialogue. For example, Nadine holds her family accountable for not relating to her after the death of their father. But without spelling it out for the audience, it’s clear that Nadine’s perceived enemies are dealing it with it in their own way, and that it’s not just blind antagonism. Nadine’s mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick, in a far more nuanced non-understanding mother role than the genre would usually require), even at her most emotionally removed and combative, is clearly in the midst of a grieving process at her husband’s passing and trying to reason with Nadine’s rejecting behavior.
And the entire cast is similarly given just enough nuance to make it relatable, but not too much to belabor a point. Nadine’s brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is an uncannily successful jock who bickers with Nadine constantly, but also has feelings and stuff when he starts dating Nadine’s best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Nadine’s erstwhile love interest, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) deals with his own social anxiety as well as his growing bond with Nadine. It’s pretty rare in modern cinema to see such effortless depth in characters. A credit to casting and Fremon Craig’s direction.
Of particular note is Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). Not only do he and Nadine have some of the best comedic dialogue sparring in the movie, and not only does his character facilitate one of the greatest and most surreal opening scenes in a movie you’ll ever see, where Nadine comes into school saying she’s going to kill herself, and you’re left wondering for half the movie what she’s talking about (a pretty good seed to plant). Not only that, but what depth in character. He has his biting quips, but he also provides a springboard for Nadine to deal with her neuroses. And as he opens up to her more and more, the movie avoids making him solely a goofy side character comic relief.
The only problem with this movie is its ending. When you make a surprisingly unforced flow of character and dialogue, it becomes difficult to tie it into an effective resolution. So suddenly characters start speaking their emotions directly, insisting that complex relationship problems get resolved completely one way or another. A pretty forgettable subplot of tough guy bad idea love interest Nick (Alexander Calvert) seems to rush in as a way out of the plot and a way to make sure the audience doesn’t have to think too hard about emotional resolution.
It was awkward to sit through, and felt like a cop out, but it was amazing how short of screen time the ending was, that they avoided cliche for so long. The experience as a whole was entirely worthwhile, and a unique endeavor into the high school experience. This movie has to be seen to be truly appreciated, with its jokes that seem to flow organically, and its characters that do the same, all the while avoiding most plodding memories of Judd Nelson standing in a football field.