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The Edge of Seventeen knows how hard it is to be a teenager — and an adult

Life comes at you fast, so The Edge of Seventeen turns it into a perceptive, smart teen comedy.

Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson in Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson in The Edge of Seventeen.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It's hard to generalize about teen comedies, but some of the most genre-defining are marked by the feeling that the teens are the smart ones and the adults are goobers.



The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off are tinged with magical realism, seen through the eyes of the teen who's got the grown-ups' number; Heathers (1988) is a very dark comedy with the trappings of a revenge thriller, and the adults are basically nowhere to be seen. Teen comedies like Bring It On (2000) and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) keep things light but are almost exclusively concerned with rich kids running amok while their parents are off doing something else. Mean Girls (2004) has well-meaning parents and teachers, but the life lessons are still up to the kids.

These comedies star teenage characters, but in the background they’re protest films, ragging on the narcissism and hypocrisy of parents, teachers, and principals.

About a decade ago, someone threw a wrench into this well-oiled machine. In 2007 we got Juno, which has both terrible adults and some good ones. Three years later we got Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci playing Emma Stone's parents in Easy A, easily the best parents ever onscreen and I will brook no further argument.

The bag has been mixed since then, but there's an observable nudge away from "adults are stupid" and toward a "parents are people too" ethic — this summer's Netflix smash hit Stranger Things, which borrows heavily from 1980s pop culture but remixes it, put the two side by side, with Barb’s mostly disconnected parents contrasted with Winona Ryder’s passionate refusal to give up looking for her son.

There's a lot of fun in the adult caricatures — and certainly most of us see our parents one-dimensionally when we're rolling our eyes at them. But cool and thoughtful and responsible grown-ups don't just come off as fresh and interesting — they pull complexity out of the teen characters as well. And The Edge of Seventeen is a great argument for this kind of writing.

The Edge of Seventeen is full of familiar characters, but with surprising depths

The Edge of Seventeen is a delightful and honest teen comedy with a mature soul, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (who also wrote the Alexis Bledel coming-of-age comedy Post Grad). It starts out looking like any other teen comedy, but keeps revealing surprising depths and turning tropes on their noses.

Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen.

Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a misanthropic, flannel-wearing high school junior who is annoyed with everyone, even when she doesn't want to be. (Remember that feeling?) Her father, whom she worshiped, died too young, and her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) has been struggling to go on ever since, dating men she shouldn't be dating and mostly leaving her kids to their own devices.

The responsibility of keeping the peace at home rests, as it so often does, on the shoulders of the oldest kid: Nadine's athletic, popular, and handsome older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). So when Nadine's one friend in the world, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), starts dating Darian, Nadine's world comes apart.

Her only confidant is her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), which is the point at which most of your alarm bells probably go off, but stick with me. She snarks at him, and he snarks right back. She sits in the classroom during lunch with him. He is, it seems, not just her confidant but her only friend.

Things keep getting worse for Nadine, especially because she's vocally obsessed with a good-looking classmate, to whom she accidentally (and graphically) expresses her overweening desire for him. (Whether she's had sex before isn't said and isn't really relevant.) Meanwhile, one of her own classmates, Erwin (Hayden Szeto, destined for greatness), is into her. They have great chemistry, but in typical 17-year-old fashion, Nadine is more interested in the mysterious bad boy than the funny guy who sits across the aisle.

The Edge of Seventeen takes teenage emotions and troubles seriously

Maybe this is a spoiler, but neither Nadine's mother nor Mr. Bruner turns out to be what you're expecting from the shorthand so often established by these character types. Nor, in fact, does Nadine, or Darian, or Krista, or Erwin (who is Korean and, though he at first seems to play into stereotypes — film geek, good student — turns surprising as well). All the characters get a moment in the film where we're startled by some aspect of them that seems, in retrospect, completely realistic.

Watching The Edge of Seventeen, I kept thinking of the British show My Mad Fat Diary. The movie admittedly doesn't share a whole lot with the show, except a central character whose general antipathy toward the world belies moments of vulnerability, and a keen sense of the kind of inner conflict that teenagers feel and express in contradictory ways. The Edge of Seventeen is a story about how growing up actually means taking stock of how lousy of a person you are, and also acknowledging that other people are doing their best to take care of you.

I also thought of this year's Sing Street, because The Edge of Seventeen is about taking the grief of teenagers seriously — with a light heart but totally lacking in any patronization — and recognizing that time doesn't always heal things the same way for everyone. Life is pretty broken, and most teen films recognize this, but in The Edge of Seventeen it's not just broken because of pimples or not having a date to the prom. The movie takes teenagers and their hurt seriously, and delivers an entertaining comedy, with Steinfeld playing believably hard-edged naiveté.

Most importantly, the adults in the film take the teenagers seriously — and demand that the teens take them seriously in return. One of the most remarkable moments in the film comes when Mr. Bruner lets Nadine into his home, showing her what a healthy home life can look like. You're as surprised as she is — and as pleased.

Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in The Edge of Seventeen.

And the other twist (such as it is, even in 2016) is Szeto's character, who is, for once, allowed to be the romantic lead as an Asian American. (Szeto himself is Canadian, and at least part Chinese, for the record.) Right now that's still relatively rare (internet boyfriend John Cho notwithstanding), but the movie has no idea why it would be — nor would it — and Szeto is charming, awkward, and handsome.

The Edge of Seventeen is a teen movie made for the millennial crowd, who've mostly aged out of their teenage years by now but tend to cross earnestness and irony, never taking anything too seriously. But at the same time, they're familiar and even comfortable with stories about depression, grief, sexual confusion, and complicated family situations. It's the opposite of a fantasy or an adults-suck farce.

Life sucks. But life gets better. Teenagers are stupid. But teenagers are brilliant. Grown-ups get hurt, and grown-ups do good things too. Being on the edge of adulthood is complex. It's nice to see movies treat it that way.

The Edge of Seventeen opens in theaters nationwide on November 18.

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