The Edge of Seventeen
Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig.
Written by: Kelly Fremon Craig.
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld (Nadine), Haley Lu Richardson (Krista), Blake Jenner (Darian), Kyra Sedgwick (Mona), Woody Harrelson (Mr. Bruner), Hayden Szeto (Erwin), Alexander Calvert (Nick Mossman), Eric Keenleyside (Tom).
If I were to tell you the basic plot outline of The Edge of Seventeen, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it sounded like a million other, generic teen movies. Perhaps it would sound like warmed over John Hughes, or Juno without the pregnancy or Easy A without all the plot. You wouldn’t necessarily even be wrong – except I will say this – John Hughes, Juno and Easy A were all great teen movies – and The Edge of Seventeen is one as well. It doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel – although it does venture into some darker, more honest territory than Hughes ever did (Hughes tried – and was at times clumsy with it), and never feels the need to make its lead character overly sympathetic. Inarguably, Nadine, played by Hailee Steinfeld, does more things wrong in the movie than the rest of the characters combined, and while she is frequently miserable, its more often than not her own damn fault. And yet, we love her anyway.
The story centers on Nadine, and a tumultuous period in her life. As a kid, she was a loner who eventually made one friend – this is Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) – and the two have become inseparable ever since. But a drunken night ends with Krista in the bed of Darian (Blake Jenner) – Nadine’s hated brother – the seemingly Golden Boy who can do no wrong – and when the two actually start dating, it causes a rift between the two friends that may not reparable. Added to this, Nadine’s widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick), doesn’t seem to understand Nadine (and makes some pretty bad mistakes herself) – it was her father Nadine was close to, and in the years since he died, she has felt more alone. Then there’s some more, typical teenage stuff – the boy Nadine has a crush on that doesn’t know she exists, the boy who has a crush on her – Erwin (Hayden Szeto) – but she thinks of as a friend. The only person she can really talk to is Mr. Burner (Woody Harrelson) – her history teacher – and that’s because he seems as misanthropic as she is. The two trade insults in a way that would be inappropriate for a teacher and student in real life, but quietly funny in this movie – the chemistry between Steinfeld and Harrelson is wonderful.
None of this is overly original to be sure – and a film with this basic setup could very well end up generic, uninspired and forgettable. But The Edge of Seventeen is none of those things – and it’s mostly because of its heroine, and the lead performance by Steinfeld. Nadine is a mess – awkward, self-involved, and sometimes thoughtless in a way that could come across as cruel at times. She is, in short, a teenager – but the type we rarely see in a movie which normally wants to paint teenagers in more simplistic terms. The mistakes Nadine makes force her into desperate situations – which she tries hilariously to get out of. The film leads to some slightly darker places than normal – her “date” with her crush for example, edges up to danger, before backing away. And the film does not try to wrap everything up in a neat little bow by the end – the relationship between mother and daughter is still strained, and may never be really good. Baby steps are taken towards reconciliation between Nadine, her brother and her former friend – but it’s hardly final (and while I do think Nadine over reacts to a lot in the film, what they did was more than a little shitty, even if understandable). Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee for the Coen’s True Grit (2010), finally finds a follow-up role worthy of her talents. Yes, her character is in the tradition of Juno or Easy A – i.e. too whip smart and articulate for a real teenager to be (or a real person for that matter) – but that hardly matters. It’s a great performance, at the heart of a wonderful movie.
The film is the directing debut of Kelly Fremon Craig – and it’s a gem. As a director, Fremon Craig keeps things mainly simple – her best touches may be in terms of soundtrack selection, which cleverly reference back to her inspirations. Her screenplay is smart and complex – funny and thoughtful. She is a filmmaker to watch for. She understands teenagers better than most – and in The Edge of Seventeen, she paints that period of life in all its messy glory. This one is a charmer.