Over the years, movies have explored virtually every corner of the all-American high school. We’ve spent time with the nerds, jocks, and hot ‘gals, and watched combinations of them all mate and mingle. It’s been a whole lot of fun, really. However, what we haven’t had yet is a coming of age story that drips with the unfiltered nihilism of somebody utterly agonized by growing pains. Enter The Edge of Seventeen, a cagey character study that enters the world of pent up adolescent rage in the year of our lord, 2016.
We find ourselves in the undeniably frustrating world of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). She’s spent her whole life having trouble connecting with other people, with the exception of her best friend Krista (Haley Ku Richardson), especially following the death of her father. Not helping matters is the universal popularity of her hunky brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and a tense relationship with her widowed mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick). Already unhappy, Nadine has what little peace of mind she does have turned inside out when she discovers that Darian and Krista have begun dating. Thus begins an existential spiral of sorts, as Nadine desperately tries to find something healthy to attach herself to.
If you’re looking for a story about a plucky young ‘gal who deals with boy trouble with an adorkable sense of humor, this ain’t your movie. Nadine is a whirlwind of negativity, largely unable to cope with the world around her. In the hands of a subpar actress, this could have made for an unwatchable headache of a film. However, we’re fortunate enough to have Hailee Steinfeld, who finally gets a role worthy of her promising breakout performance in True Grit back in 2011. She creates a character who balances cutting wit with honest emotional turmoil. She delivers every line with such intense self-loathing that it feels as if each word out of her mouth strains her more than the last. She also displays a great deal of physical defensiveness, often shaking with rage or recoiling at any form of physical contact. However, underneath all of her pain, Steinfeld shows us shades of the kind person that lies deep inside Nadine. At the end of the day, she’s a sweet girl who is just having an incredibly hard time processing the world around her, and adjusting to the social interactions that she is actually comfortable having.
Steinfeld’s powerhouse turn certainly doesn’t overpower the strong supporting cast. Woody Harrelson shines in every scene he’s in as Nadine’s equally cynical history teacher. These two have several brilliant exchanges of tender depreciation. Seeing a student and teacher act like two old pals on a park bench is something entirely new, and it works like a charm. Hayden Szeto has a low-key charm as Erwin, a kind boy in Nadine’s class who she ultimately comes to bond with. Jenner, Sedgwick, and Richardson also get several wonderful confrontations with Nadine, and they all feel authentic. These aren’t characters with contrived movie issues. They’re characters who have caused each other severe trauma and do their best to work through it despite Nadine’s absolute resistance to any sort of reconciliation.
This film is the brainchild of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (who makes her debut behind the camera here), who does a wonderful job at both ends. Her screenplay does very well at capturing the voice of high school kids without coming across as overtly quirky. If anything, Nadine is a middle finger to the Junos, Olive Penderghasts, and Cady Herrons of the world. Her direction is light on its feet. She keeps things moving at a nimble, energetic pace while giving her actors space to play in the moments that count. Time will tell if this is a case of beginner’s luck, but Craig does prove herself to be a generational voice to watch.
Unfortunately, there is a major problem that ultimately does harm the story’s emotional trajectory. The way that Krista and Darian’s relationship starts to develop proves them both to be fairly despicable people. The way they treat Nadine, somebody who is so close to both of them, is so cold hearted that it makes her fury towards them entirely understandable. The film continuously tries to paint this as a two sided issue, but no matter how many times it tries to sidestep how horrible these two are being, it never becomes less obvious. It’s certainly not completely devoid of nuance, but by the time the film circles back to them with its “the world isn’t about you” arc, the beats that follow don’t feel entirely earned. The rest of the narrative relies so much on our secondhand embarrassment for Nadine, that this very cut and dry element ultimately doesn’t mesh as well as Craig thinks it does.
The Edge of Seventeen is one of the most thematically rich and flat-out hilarious high school movies of the twenty-first century. It’s certainly the best one since 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It might lack the penchant for gut punching that film had, but it more than makes up for that with Nadine’s fascinating anti-charm. Not all of the subplots quite mesh together, and the conclusion does feel slightly contrived. However, following a film that may come across as all too real for many people in this phase of their lives, a little comfort food isn’t the worst thing. Take the family over Thanksgiving, and have a good old time squirming at days gone by together.