Teenage girls are the worst. I say this as a former teenage girl who was relatively well-adjusted and was still an absolute disaster. “The Edge of Seventeen” captures that quality with courage, introducing a heroine in Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine who shifts between moods and actions with the speed and unpredictability that only the adolescent cocktail of hormones and a little bit of freedom can induce. Nadine is, by turns, awkward, abrasive and entirely relatable. We spend less than two hours with her, but Steinfeld’s performance and the script from Kelly Fremon Craig have created a young woman who feels entirely familiar, while never feeling like a retread of the other teenagers who have walked the cinematic high school halls before her.
Nadine is a junior who is profoundly unpopular (in the way that only beautiful actresses can be in the movies), though she has a single ride-or-die friend in Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Nadine has long lived in the shadow of her popular, overachieving, athletic brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), and they’re at odds as only siblings who are close in age can be. When a drunken night finds Krista and Darian hooking up and starting a relationship, Nadine feels she’s lost her only friend. Their mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is little help, with her focus on her own problems and romances. Armed only with the reluctant companionship of her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), she tries to win over her crush Nick (Alexander Calvert), who is “so hot” post-juvie. Meanwhile, she starts spending more time with her equally awkward puppy dog of a classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).
“The Edge of Seventeen” doesn’t break much new ground in its form or approach, though centering on a character who is both so young and so complex sets it apart from lesser teen movies, as does its much appreciated lack of a makeover montage, making Nadine’s lack of fashion sense a non-issue. She is well-intentioned, but she’s sometimes mean and often unable to stop herself from self-destructive acts. James L. Brooks serves as a producer, and it’s easy to draw a line between Nadine and Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig in “Broadcast News.” Both are bristly creatures, often easier to identify with than to like, which makes them easy to really love. There’s a definite arc for Nadine here, and her evolution is a natural one, given her place in life. It’s not a spoiler to say that “The Edge of Seventeen” finds Nadine growing and growing up, discovering who she wants to be to herself and the people she values in her life.
A lot of the credit goes to Steinfeld. She’s game to be silly, be casually cruel to those around her and feel the isolation of being left out–and each emotion is clear on her face. As an actress, she continues to deliver on the promise of her breakout role in “True Grit,” and I’m excited to see what she does from here. Even if Nadine doesn’t always play well with others, Steinfeld works well with her castmates, particularly with Harrelson’s grump of a teacher and Szeto’s overeager Erwin. Harrelson and Steinfeld bounce off each other, each bearing spikes that make their interactions impossible not to watch. As Erwin, Szeto is warm and weird, but the performance is so confident that it’s surprising that the actor was being credited simply as “Teen” on “Days of Our Lives” just earlier this year.
In addition to writing the screenplay, Craig makes her directorial debut with “The Edge of Seventeen,” which ranks among the best teen comedies of last two decades. It would feel right at home with a movie marathon of modern classics “Mean Girls” and “Easy A.” Like those two, the film gamely walks the line between hilarious quotes and sharp insight about being a teenager, but there’s more emotion here. I found myself alternately cackling the loudest laughs in the theater and scrambling for tissues in my purse pocket. This movie gets the loneliness of being a teenager, but its appeal extends far beyond that period in life. [B+]