Just as Stevie Nicks once sung about sorrow, The Edge Of Seventeen ties teenage angst with lonesome grief in a way that’s all-too real (and somehow delightful). Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut – while rooted in tragedy – blasts light through darkness, and works to build characters who navigate raw minefields full of suffering. We’ve all endured the torture of puberty, grasping helplessly onto slippery ropes that eventually lead to self-discovery, but Craig tunes into adolescent ambivalence with more humor and heart than most.
It’s this abandonment of lovey-dovey mentoring that appreciates the imperfections of life, staged against pitch-black wit introduced through a scene-one suicide confession (obvious over-dramatics, but a prime start nonetheless). The Edge Of Seventeen is a plea for those who feel hopelessly alone, and a reminder that high school is but a phase – even if, in those years, it seems like the end of days.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as a frumpy social outcast named Nadine, whose only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), enters a romantic relationship with her meathead brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). Nadine – betrayed and alone – pulls deeper into a lonesome hole where life offers no meaning. Her father, the only person in her corner (she thought), tragically passed away a few years prior. Since then, it’s been nothing but fights with her widowed mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and “why me” complaints.
Krista was her only companion, but now Nadine finds herself eating lunch with Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), her under-achieving History teacher whose advice is typically stinging, and never what she wants to hear. Life feels overwhelmingly bleak to Nadine, so what’s the point in going on? Family, friends and the prospect of brighter days – all of which she ignores for another minute of self pity.
If anyone was still on the fence about young Ms. Steinfeld (some people are weird, I don’t know), The Edge Of Seventeen will surely convert. She’s like MTV’s Daria with a little more pep, destined to wallow in her own self pity like some alt-rock nerd’s dream muse. Every thought she verbalizes runs twelve sentences too long – mostly to make some bitchy analysis or pop-culture metaphor – but we always remain tethered to her pain. Steinfeld does a fantastic job tempering emotional outbursts with inner quarrels, never losing Nadine to kitschy references and typical nerdy-but-adorable character mapping. This is a soulful rendition of a social outcast’s clique-bashing imprisonment, spearheaded by Steinfeld’s charismatic subjection to high school hellishness and maturity without grace.
Elsewhere, the actress is surrounded by a steadfast supporting cast who falls into place around her isolated cries for help. Harrelson, as laid-back Mr. Bruner, pushes back against Nadine exactly as an advice-doling adult “shouldn’t” – perfection by way of insults and tough-love. When Nadine says she wants to kill herself (once again, an obvious lie), Mr. Bruner responds with his own suicide note about how he just wants to eat lunch in peace. Mr. Bruner is meant to appear combative towards Nadine, but we realize he’s the only character who knows how to break through his student’s hardened exterior shell. Such is the film’s tightest chemistry, evoking hearty laughs through bickering and compassion.
That’s not to write off Nadine’s family collective. Sedgwick plays ditzy and lonesome, grieving over her husband with dentists while fighting against her daughter, as Jenner’s brother picks up the pieces as his family’s rock. Aiding in complexity, Richardson’s ex-best-friend for the moment, swayed by hormones and unspoken bonds tested by attraction. Nadine feels assaulted from every angle, and her honest aggression towards these parties builds a more empathetic ending come epiphany time.
The Edge Of Seventeen marks Kelly Fremon Craig’s feature debut, but the emotional core she harnesses stands head-and-shoulders above similar coming-of-age stories. Every detail screams childhood. Hayden Szeto’s nervous admirer Erwin so embodies the lackluster dating awareness many of us shamefully excused as suave, equal to Nadine’s obsession with bad-boy Nick (Alexander Calvert) despite never having said a word to him. All the little nuances – hating ourselves while drunkenly vomiting into a toilet, envying those who ooze confidence, assuming high school is the end of the world – build a universally recognizable lifestyle for Nadine to verbally berate. Dialogue spews without filter, often biting and cruel because of teenage intentions – yet never mean.
OK, I mean, technically it’s EXTREMELY mean, but character composition allows us to understand Nadine’s perspective before she evolves into some Mean Girls stereotype. Not everyone gets to be the stud jock or entitled rich kid. Everyone has their demons, even if some wear them better than others. God bless Craig’s ability to capture youthful foolishness in a way that still makes us love Nadine, even despite her rampage through the lives of so many bystanders.
You only come-of-age once, which makes a movie like The Edge Of Seventeen so special. We’re reminded of the moments that helped mold us thus far – be them epic or utterly embarrassing – relieving those terrible decisions, and fundamental experiences of failure meant to steer us towards betterment. Hailee Steinfeld’s unmissable firecracker of a performance transports us back to somewhere volatile, opening us to the whimsy of what lies ahead.
Certain schoolyard elements may feel a tad derivative, but Kelly Fremon Craig does right to nurture the luminescent glow of humanity in most scenes. It may not be obvious – Kristy’s introduction while dressed like a “tiny Grandpa,” Jenner’s bare-all admission, Edwin’s playlist song selection – but non-stop smiles indicate complete audience understanding. Laugh, cringe and grow along with Nadine, as you take one of the year’s more fulfilling spiritual journeys through Hell and back (to a teenager, that is).
The Edge Of Seventeen boasts an emotional journey filled with wit, humor and heart, resting easy on the back of Hailee Steinfeld's dynamite performance.