With painful accuracy and often hilarious insight, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen” explores the difficulties of being a “difficult” adolescent better than nearly any film of its type. Its authenticity makes it a Rorschach test, with your opinion of it depending on your own memories of knowing kids like this – or of beinga kid like this.
Hailee Steinfeld, who was great in “True Grit”(2010) and has only improved as she’s matured, plays 17-year-old Nadine, an intelligent Oregon misfit who’s uncomfortable in her own skin, awkwardly talkative, and unable to relate to her peers. An “old soul,” she’s smarter than most of her generation (she decries their obsession with texting and emojis), but she yearns to be accepted by them, even as she realizes it’s mostly her own off-putting behavior that prevents it.
Nadine’s mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), vain and insecure in her own way, has been a mess since Nadine’s father, the glue that held the family together, died a few years ago. Now she relies too much on Nadine’s golden older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), to help run the household, which is too much pressure for him. Darian begins dating Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) … who happens to be Nadine’s one and only true friend, her faithful companion since second grade.
Nadine, already a darkly sarcastic girl prone to overreaction, completely freaks out over this development, shunning friend and brother alike and seeking guidance from Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), her cool, snarky history teacher and the only adult who understands her – exemplified in the first scene, when Nadine interrupts Mr. Bruner’s lunch hour to say she plans to commit suicide and he responds that he’s planning the same thing because his lunch hour keeps getting interrupted. They have that kind of relationship.
There isn’t much to the plot beyond Nadine’s struggle to cope with her best friend dating her brother, which reflects on Nadine’s larger struggle to find her own place in the world. She has the hots for a bad boy (Alexander Calvert) who works at a pet store, and her efforts to attract him are humorous, cringeworthy, and heartbreaking, sometimes all at once. (Has any movie more accurately depicted the process of writing a text, rereading it, saying, “What am I doing? I sound like a crazy person!” and deleting it? And if you don’t know what that feels like, this movie isn’t for you.) Meanwhile, a nice guy, Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who’s as awkward around people as Nadine is except that his awkwardness seems happier, develops a crush on her, and may be her salvation.
You can see the formulas at work here: the outcast smart kid, the relatable teacher, the parent who needs to grow up, the general despair of high school. But Craig overcomes the hurdle of familiarity by making Nadine, her mom, and her brother all into fully developed characters. Nadine is unquestionably the focus, but Mona and Darian each have scenes delving into their own issues, as well as their relationship with each other, separate from Nadine. What seems at first to be a stinging comedy about a teenager’s angst turns out to be about an entire family.
Steinfeld shows boldness and vulnerability as Nadine, embracing the character’s prickly idiosyncrasies even when it makes it hard for us to like her. That’s the whole point: Nadine often doesn’t like herself either, but doesn’t know how to change. The film dares to let us see her broken side along with her smart, funny, sensitive side. We sympathize because, if we’re being honest, we can relate.
B+ (1 hr., 44 min.; )