We’ve seen plenty of coming of age teen dramedies since the 1980s and beyond. It’s the kind of thing John Hughes cornered a market on three decades ago. I have a feeling Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen would’ve made him smile. It presents teens who are smart and complicated. High schoolers who are capable of being wholly self-absorbed yet most of it stems from insecurity. Our central character Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) means well most of the time, at least in her own mind. And she’s the prime example of the traits listed above. With a truly impressive performance from an actress who broke out at age 14 in the Coens True Grit, both Steinfeld and Craig’s screenplay make Nadine feel authentic. You root for her even when you’re exasperated by her. Many a parent with teens could surely relate.
Nadine is an outsider – a high school junior with only one real friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). She’s always been a bit of a loner and the loss of her beloved father four years ago complicated it. Her overwhelmed Mom (Kyra Sedgwick) has a tough time figuring how to deal with her, while her super popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) seems to have life all figured out. When Darian and Krista begin dating, Nadine’s abandonment issues only worsen.
Throughout the picture, she turns to various people to try and alleviate her social awkwardness. This includes slightly nerdy student Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who’s crushing on her and too cool for school student Nick (Alexander Calvert), who she’s crushing on. Both relationships present with their own versions of humorous and recognizable awkwardness. Nadine also confides in her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). He’s nowhere near the uncaring educator you’d witness in other genre pics nor the always wiser than thou teach you may have seen before. He clearly cares about Nadine, but his advice and comebacks are often genuinely surprising. There’s a subtly played moment where his pupil realizes her teacher has a life outside of the classroom and it feels just right. Most pleasingly, the role serves as another reminder that Harrelson has morphed into one of the most interesting character actors working today. He’s a pleasure to watch.
So is Steinfeld and the rest of the cast. The Edge of Seventeen might be more satisfying to viewers who have surpassed the age in the title by a few years. There may be more satisfaction for adults who can pick out their own remembrances of what it was like to be that age, when the highs couldn’t have seemed higher and the lows were literally the end of the world. Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a perceptive, occasionally laugh out loud funny, and genuinely emotional snapshot of someone in that time period.
***1/2 (out of four)