Every year there is a slew of teenage-oriented films that populate the box office. In most years, the majority of these are mediocre and completely disposable while a few have broader, mass appeal and are worth seeing. Some years feature a better crop than others; 2013, for example, was an exceptional year for coming-of-age films (The Kings of Summer, The Spectacular Now, The To Do List, The Way Way Back). 2016 has not featured many notable ones, but one that has garnered some recognition is The Edge of Seventeen, a dramedy featuring Hailee Steinfeld that is smart and funny.
Nadine (Steinfeld) is a 17 year-old who is having a terrible life. According to her, there are two kinds of people in life, “those who radiate confidence and naturally excel at life, and those who hope those people die in a fiery explosion.” Nadine falls in the latter category, while her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), falls into the former category. Nadine’s only real friend is Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), whom she’s known since she was in 2nd grade and has been with her through thick and thin, including the death of Nadine’s father when she was 13. Nadine’s world is thrown into complete upheaval when Darian and Krista suddenly become a couple. Suddenly friendless and adrift in her Junior year of high school and increasingly feeling like the world is set against her, Nadine spends her time avoiding Darian and Krista, butting heads with her mom (Kyra Sedgwick), eating lunch in Mr. Bruner’s (Woody Harrelson) classroom, increasingly pining for school bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), and slowly developing an awkward friendship with her classroom admirer, Edwin (Hayden Szeto).
Teen movies are as susceptible as any genre to feeling formulaic, maybe even more so . Of course The Edge of Seventeen has tropes that it follows, which is unavoidable. The question is whether it has anything to offer beyond those tropes. Is it able to rise above the conventions of the coming-of-age movie and actually have anything to say? Those are the kinds of movies that stand out and survive the test of time. In some ways this film reminds me of Mean Girls, Juno, and Easy A.
What makes the film stand out to me the most is how it handles Nadine. Despite the fact that she is quick witted and quick with her words, Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer and director, and Steinfeld, the actress, are not afraid to make Nadine unlikeable at times and wrong. So often, when a film is told from the perspective of one character, and especially when the film is narrated by them (as is the case here), the audience tends to see the world through their eyes, take their perspective on things, and empathize with their plight. That is a tricky thing with Nadine, especially when she has such animosity toward her brother Darian and ex-best friend Krista, who are far from “evil” characters. There are no “Plastics” or villains here. In fact, the one who comes closest to being the villain of the story at times is Nadine.
Nadine has gone through life to this point not really needing other people outside of her dad and best friend. Being content or resigned to that confined sphere means that when both of those are taken from her, she doesn’t handle it well. The loss of her father is a tragedy, the loss of her best friend is betrayal, by her own blood and her best friend. Couple this with the fact that teenagers tend to treat anything and everything as a life or death situation, and it’s easy to see how Nadine’s life begins to spiral a bit and she becomes a bit desperate, and she does and says things that are funny but that also make you cringe. The film opens with her marching into Mr. Bruner’s classroom and telling him that she is going to kill herself, jumps back in time a bit to show us everything that led to that moment, and by the time we are caught up to speed we see how she has arrived at this conclusion that, in her eyes, her world is over.
Of course, by the time the audience is caught up to speed about 2/3 of the way through, the film has taken us from being on her side to the more rational, if unsympathetic, conclusion of Mr. Bruner, which is that while her circumstance is pretty bad, things are probably not as bad as she thinks. It’s also at this point that events begin to be set in motion that result in the growth in her character needed to make the film have any importance. Nadine is a character who, whether she chose it or not, has come to accept a level of isolation around her. Somewhere along the line, things turned from not really making friends to keeping most people at arms length. Because of that, she’s a little self-absorbed, though not in a conceited way, and some of the bad choices she makes, which we know are bad choices as she is making them, ultimately end up leading her to moments that help to change her perspective and perception of people. She makes the important realization that it is not all about her.
Steinfeld and Harrelson are the standouts of a pretty solid and enjoyable cast. Steinfeld first got recognized for her amazing performance in the Coen Bros. remake of True Grit back in 2010. She was a young teenager who more than held her own with Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin in that film. She showed herself to be a promising young actress, and in the six years since she has only solidified and built upon that notion. I haven’t seen everything she has done in between these films, but she has been very good in several supporting roles I have seen (Ender’s Game, Begin Again, Pitch Perfect 2), and this is potentially a breakout role for her as a young adult actress. Harrelson’s performance as Mr. Bruner is a role that is perfectly suited to his strengths. There’s a bit of the Haymitch-Katniss dynamic from The Hunger Games in the interaction between Nadine and Mr. Bruner. If anything, his character is even more apathetic here. It’s also hilarious that Nadine’s personality has gravitated toward this particular teacher for guidance instead of the stereotypical inspirational teacher that is often found in these films. Hayden Szento’s performance as the incredibly awkward Edwin is also pretty great for how often he stumbles over himself but is also self-deprecating and self-aware enough to realize how awkward he is and not let it affect him.
Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a witty, funny film here, and given Hailee Steinfeld the right role to really excel and show her ability as an actress. The Edge of Seventeen is knowingly insightful about how relationships between teens and their parents can be strained, how difficult it can be to fit in, how myopic high school life can be and how momentous any event can seem, and how painfully socially awkward it all can be at times. Because of all of those things, but also because of the conclusions it arrives at, and the journey it takes to get there, make it a film worth seeing.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars