In 2001, exasperation with a certain film genre reached such heights as to produce a work called, literally, Not Another Teen Movie. Fifteen years later, a few bright spots (Mean Girls, Juno, The Spectacular Now) haven’t quite dispelled the sense that the Venn diagram between angsty white teenagers and meaningful art has drifted into two non-overlapping circles. Revising that graphic is The Edge of Seventeen, the new film from first-time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig. It courses through high school like a puff of wind, at once funnier, sweeter, more specific, and more heartbreaking than all of the tropes it expertly whips up. (It is also pure oxygen in a week where many of us are still choking on the news cycle.) What a great reminder: While adolescents may be melodramatic creatures who thrive on clichés, stories about adolescents don’t have to be.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a beguiling blend of charisma, lancing intelligence, and hostile insecurity. We first meet her bursting into the office of her laconic history teacher, Mr. Bruner (a perfectly checked-out Woody Harrelson) to announce that she is going to kill herself. The inciting incident? Without spoiling the details, Nadine is still reeling from the discovery that her best and only friend Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson) hooked up with her golden boy brother (Everybody Wants Some’s Blake Jenner).
This standard-issue teen trauma cuts surprisingly deep: Nadine’s mother (Kyra Sedgwick) clearly “chose” Darien over her other child, and her dad, who really got her, died when Nadine was 13. Four years later, the universe appears to have chosen Darien, too: He radiates well-adjusted success, while Nadine’s natural moroseness has matured into crabby impatience with the world at large. After her only ally succumbs to her brother’s incontrovertible jawline, the prospect of Krista “choosing” Darien so terrifies Nadine that she bullies her into … choosing Darien. That’s when—lonelier, angrier, and more prone to interrupting Mr. Bruner’s lunch hour than ever before—Nadine sets out to ruin her life in earnest.
Helping her along on that front is Nick (Alexander Calvert), the rebel hottie who works at Petland and whom Nadine dreams of ravishing “in front of all the tropical fish. It’d be spiritual.” (Petland also gives Steinfeld the opportunity to utter the most haltingly wonderful pick-up line: “Could you … point me … in the direction … of the cat litter?”) Meanwhile, adorable nerd Erwin (Hayden Szeto, stealing every scene) gently angles for Nadine’s affections. Both boys are types-turned-real by the funniness of the writing and the strength of their performances. Pinocchio went from puppet to human by proving his “bravery and truthfulness”—Edge of Seventeen likewise transcends its tropes by being just a bit truer, sadder, and bolder than it needs to be.
Take the psychological backstory informing Nadine’s freakout. A lot of teen movies might not flesh out the whys of her overreaction so carefully, and in such dark colors. But Nadine is more than a typical wisecracking outcast. She struggles with profound self-loathing, lamenting that “when I look at myself, I hate what I see and I don’t know how to change it.” Likewise, her third-act confrontation with Darien shrewdly illumines the strains their family (not to mention the conventions of the high school comedy) place on his character. It’s the story beat we expect, but it breaks through Nadine’s self-absorption in a way that feels as cathartic for her as it does for him. Craig never fails to take adolescents seriously as people-in-training—even with all the hilarious, deflating “perspective” wafting in from Harrelson. (“You’ve just had brain surgery,” he tells Nadine at one point, rousing her from a nap on her desk, “to make you pleasant and agreeable.”)
A central poignancy of teen movies is that the characters believe that they are locked into their circumstances forever, while viewers know how fleeting and contingent each social relation, setback, and triumph really is. High schoolers exist in a state of transition; The Edge of Seventeen hints at that with its title.
And with its omnipresent backdrop: the car. The most important moments transpire in automobiles, as if nodding at personalities and worldviews in dizzying flux. Nadine’s dad dies in a car. Nadine tries to seduce Nick in a car. (Then she insults his shitty car.) She refuses to get out of cars, refuses to get in cars, and steals her mom’s car. When you leave the theater, you feel as though you’ve finished a road trip through some of High School Film Land’s best-loved attractions: the excruciating party scene, the swoony Ferris wheel ride (complete with a kiss attempted and rebuffed), the swimming pool seduction, the grand romantic gesture. But each stop is ever so slightly better than you remembered. Not another teen movie, indeed.