Anyone looking casually at the advertisements and coming attractions for The Edge of Seventeen might easily come away expecting something typical — a standard entry in the coming-of-age comedy genre.
But while The Edge of Seventeen does deliver on the promise of being funny, it’s mostly dead serious and deserving of respect and attention. It’s far from the usual thing — and better than the usual thing.
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, making her feature film debut, the movie presents us with a very distinct character, not an EveryTeenager, but someone specific, edgy and interesting.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is profane and loquacious, outgoing and yet insecure, needlessly cynical and inappropriately romantic. She comes off as assertive, but says things like, “I heard my voice in a voice mail — how can anyone stand me?”
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She has the makings of a terrific woman, but she is miserable as a teenager, and her family situation isn’t great, either.
Her one sure hold on emotional security is her friendship with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who is as calm and reflective as Nadine is erratic. The filmmaker captures a nice dynamic we don’t often see in movies, though we can recognize it from life.
Nadine dominates Krista. She is the prime mover in everything they do. And yet Nadine needs Krista a bit more than Krista needs Nadine. Such odd balances in power are often at the heart of lifelong friendships.
Then something simple happens that upends Nadine’s world: Krista enters into a relationship with Nadine’s older brother (Blake Jenner).
This presents a big problem for lots of reasons, only some of which are conscious. Her brother is popular in school, and he’s popular in the household, the favorite of their mother (Kyra Sedgwick). In going out with Krista, it’s as if the brother is snatching from her the only thing Nadine has that is hers.
Most of The Edge of Seventeen takes place over a handful of days, as Nadine reacts to the change in circumstances and goes into a tailspin. Nadine’s behavior may be irrational, but at every point it’s understandable, and the movie finds drama in the every day, without ever-resorting to the unusual or sensational.
Nadine’s problems remain human scale — loneliness, social embarrassment, the threat of humiliation.
Woody Harrelson has a featured role as one of Nadine’s teachers, and he provides a sardonic sounding board for her melodramatic rants. Like everything else in the film, this teacher is not quite what you’d expect. He’s not that concerned — he’d really rather be left alone.
And there’s a very strong suggestion that he’s probably lousy at his job, just punching a clock and phoning it in. Harrelson finds the humor in that, in the exhaustion of an adult who has to listen to kids all day, but who feels his real life is elsewhere.
As Nadine, Steinfeld has never been better. It might even be true to say that she’s never really been particularly good until now. Her roles have mainly been restrained, but here she gets to let loose, play big, run with scenes and follow her inspiration.
What a wonderful liberation it is not to have to act nice all the time. And everyone surrounding her is superb — not just Harrelson, but Sedgwick, Jenner and Richardson.
This is a film in which the actors listen carefully and play off of each other every scene. Watch Steinfeld and Richardson in the diner scene, in particular, about a third into the movie, in which they talk about Krista’s involvement with the brother.
These are two young actresses, barely 20 years old, but the director creates for them an environment in which they can be spontaneous and in the moment. Just savor the human spectacle of people actually thinking on screen, feeling things, reacting as the other talks.
Kelly Fremon Craig is a good writer, who is also a good director, and The Edge of Seventeen is the beginning of a career worth watching.
The Edge of Seventeen
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson
Rated: R (sexual content, language and some drinking, all involving teens)
Running time: 104 min.