James L. Brooks knows a thing or two about mining fresh filmmaking talent. The writer-director-producer behind films like Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets and TV’s landmark The Simpsons is largely responsible for the careers of both Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson, having mentored them on their respective debuts, Say Anything (1989) and Bottle Rocket (1996).
Discovering such filmmakers with unique visions — or auteurs, if you will — is rare; yet Brooks might have found another with The Edge of Seventeen writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig. The high school-set comedy-drama, starring Hailee Steinfeld as a socially awkward teen whose life crumbles to pieces after her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her older brother (Blake Jenner), has earned straight As since closing out the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
The Edge of Seventeen has a timeless feel that’s drawing comparisons to the best in its class — Say Anything or all those ’80s classics from John Hughes, or more contemporary favorites like Clueless (1995) or Mean Girls (2004). “You realize that the movie is not just a superior model of teen comedy; it may, in fact, be the equal of those beloved ’80s touchstones,” assessed Rolling Stone‘s David Fear. The Los Angeles Times‘ Justin Chang called the film “the rare coming-of-age picture that feels less like a retread than a renewal.”
How Fremon Craig and Brooks linked up involves a pretty simple showbiz premise. Fremon Craig, a native of Orange County, Calif., was taking mostly writer-for-hire gigs and had one produced credit to her name, the 2009 Alexis Bledel rom-com Post Grad. Craig was “really unhappy” with the finished product, and generally disenfranchised with the type of work Hollywood was offering. “I came to a point with myself where I was like, OK, I’ve got to just sit down and write something that I care about,” Craig told Yahoo Movies. “I have to get back to why I originally started writing.”
She wrote what was originally titled Besties on spec and, after huddling with her rep in 2011, decided to take a shot by sending it to Brooks’s production company, Gracie Films. “There was just nobody on Earth I was more enamored with as a filmmaker. I’d just loved him all of my life. He was the reason why I wanted to get into film,” said Fremon Craig, adding that she never thought Brooks would even read it. But he did, and he bit. “Somehow that Hail Mary pass worked out.”
This kicked off a four-year collaboration between the pair. Brooks loved the idea and was impressed with Fremon Craig’s drive (“She told me, ‘Nobody will work as hard as I do,'” he remembered), but encouraged her to spend time talking to teenagers. It was a similar approach taken in the late-’80s by Crowe, who had based Say Anything‘s Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) on a kickboxing neighbor he’d become fascinated with.
“She turned out to be this amazing researcher,” Brooks said. “She met with so many young women, and asked such provocative, extraordinary questions.” After six months of research Fremon Craig told Brooks she had to throw everything away and start over. The original draft suddenly felt like a glossier, sterilized portrayal of teendom. “What the research showed me is just how messy this age is, and complicated and raw and painful. So the new draft really had that essence at the center of it. I was really trying not to shy away from anything. Here’s everything about this girl. Some of it’s ugly, some it’s pretty, some of it’s in-between. Here’s the complete picture.” The Edge of Seventeen as we now know it was born.
Although Fremon Craig didn’t have any directorial experience, Brooks never sought anyone else to helm the picture. “The one edge that writer-directors have is that as they’ve written it, they’ve seen the movie in their minds,” Brooks said. “They’ve done a preliminary draft of directing it already, and it’s evident in the pages.”
Then came the pair’s most monumental task: finding the right actors. “I knew casting was everything in this film, it’s a film that lives and dies with performance,” Fremon Craig said. “So that was the one thing we absolutely had to get right, otherwise the film wouldn’t work. So it was labor-intensive and grueling, particularly with Hailee’s character [Nadine].”
Fremon Craig and Brooks saw more than a thousand young actresses before the first one with an Oscar nod on her résumé turned up: Steinfeld, a Best Supporting Actress nominee for True Grit. “The thing that Hailee does that I don’t even know how to explain, is that somehow she manages to be so compelling and so interesting and magnetic, that even when her character is being a jerk, you can’t stop rooting for her,” Fremon Craig marveled.
Watch a clip from ‘The Edge of Seventeen’:
It’s true: Even as Nadine alienates or avoids each and every one of the well-intentioned friends, family members, and mentors in her inner-circle — from best friend Krista to brother Darian to her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) to her wry teacher (Woody Harrelson) to the nice guy crushing on her (Hayden Szeto) — the audience remains behind her. It’s why the film wins.
Speaking of mentors, Brooks politely abstained from recognizing his role as one to Craig, Crowe, and Anderson. “Oh, I would absolutely use the word ‘mentor,'” Fremon Craig countered. “He has such humility that he doesn’t want to use any words that would steal any credit but that’s just because of what an amazing human being he is. He taught me from the ground up. He was a mentor in every sense of that word.”
The Edge of Seventeen is now playing.