The Edge of Seventeen” is a teenage movie in the same way “Juno” was a teenage movie: Its stars may be under 20, but its story is for anyone, and there are solid adult characters as well.
Hailee Steinfeld shines as Nadine, a teenager unhappy for all the usual reasons, as well as some genuine problems. Woody Harrelson is her grumpy but kind teacher. Both are genuinely unlikable at times, and that’s what makes the film work.
As it opens, we learn Nadine has always resented her older brother, Darian, for his good looks and general likability. While Darian is their mother’s favorite, Nadine often needs their father to smooth things over for her. Since childhood Nadine and her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) have butted heads, and her big-hearted father has to intervene.
When Nadine’s biggest champion dies suddenly, it’s a catastrophe for the entire family but hits Nadine the hardest — at least that’s how her father’s death feels to her. Scenes throughout the film when this event is discussed are well-written and skillfully show the difference in perception within the family.
Mom and Darian lean on each other, while Nadine is further alienated. She feels the only person who loves and understands her is her lifelong best friend, Krista. When Krista and Darian start dating, Nadine does not take it well, to say the least.
Steinfeld makes Nadine just frustrating enough, and while she does not reach the quirky intellectual level of the aforementioned “Juno,” she is a delightfully smart kid who is fun to watch. The dialogue is natural and real. In particular, the tentative romance between Nadine and classmate Erwin Kim, a nice-looking nerd with more going for him than meets the eye, is nuanced and realistically paced. As Erwin, Chinese-Canadian actor Hayden Szeto is a wonderfully unusual heartthrob, a multifaceted “nerd” who completely sold his performance and steals the show. It’s a breakout role.
The depiction of Nadine’s approach to sex is also nicely handled. She talks about it and even offers it, but she is not prepared to engage in it. She nervously, desperately offers sex, then quickly retracts what she claims was a joke.
Again, perspective is key; the two boys she’s involved with handle her propositions very differently because one actually likes her and one does not. Admittedly they were simply taking her at her word, however poorly planned her offer might have been. There are no black and white villains, although our sympathy, or at least mine, rests firmly with Nadine.
This film feels real, but not to such a horrifying degree that it deserves the term “gritty,” like “Thirteen” or even the recent phenomenon “13 Reasons Why.” (I just realized how many teen-themed entertainments have numbers in the title. Try harder, namers of young adult films.) It is realistic enough to make you remember your own teen years, no matter how near or far away they may be, and above all the film is hilarious.
The balance between teen problems and adult problems is perfect, and keeps the film appealing for humans of all ages. There are “clean your room” type issues, but also genuine heartache over the death of the father. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig gives her actors room to show their side of the story. Her writing, and the performances delivered, are spot-on.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is a truly memorable entry into a very full genre. It rings true while avoiding the many clichés of the after-school special, the teen comedy gross-out or any other unappealing cookie-cutter depiction of a complex time of life.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is currently available to rent.