Sharply written and featuring a spirited leading performance from Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen harkens back to the ’80s classics of John Hughes while providing a contemporary basis for newfound teenage insight.
If Molly Ringwald could send text messages and had a more acerbic tongue she might have resembled Nadine, the main character of the new teenage comedy The Edge of Seventeen. Played by Hailee Steinfeld in a voracious, deeply realized performance, Nadine is prickly, whip-smart, and doesn’t ever think before she talks. Glued to her phone and socially awkward, she is modern day adolescence personified as one confused, lonely, lost young woman.
Nadine could perhaps become a new teen movie idol for the millennial generation. Punchy and in a constant state of annoyance with the world, she lacks any sort of mental filter, judges her classmates and anyone else who crosses her path, and dresses as if everyone else in the world is blind. It isn’t her own drum that she marches to – it’s the ebbs and flows of her emotions and hormones that provide her only guidance. She’s so distinctive she doesn’t even realize how unique she truly is.
Initially reserved and introspective, Nadine’s a loner until she meets Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). The two aren’t really outcasts or misfits, they just reside on a different mental plane than their peers; they’re both perhaps “old(er) souls” in a way. Krista brings out the best in Nadine, and the two have the type of BFF bond every teenage girl wants with their bestie.
Family life doesn’t offer much in the way of support for Nadine’s awkward stage. Mentally unstable following the loss of her husband years earlier, Nadine’s mom Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) isn’t a strong parental figure around the house. Responsibility generally falls to Nadine’s popular older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). The transitional stage of being a junior in high school is rocky enough for Nadine as it is, but her world really begins to crumble when Krista and Darian start sleeping with each other. The situation becomes a full-on disaster, transforming the family home into a war zone, when the two become an official, serious couple.
Alone at school without Krista, Nadine’s social difficulties become even more obvious. She skips out of the cafeteria at lunchtime and finds refuge in an empty classroom with the surly Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). Bruner’s thorny and cold on the outside but recognizes Nadine’s struggles. He becomes sort of a de facto mentor for her and comes through in extreme times of need.
There are definite shades of The Perks of Being a Wallflower – perhaps the best teen-focused film of recent years – and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in The Edge of Seventeen’s DNA. First time director Kelly Fremon Craig clearly has a deep understanding and empathy for Nadine and holds her tight even as she puts the character through some uncomfortable and upsetting situations. The darkness and brutality of adult life is always lurking around the corner.
The screenplay (also by Craig) is lightning quick and seethes honesty from the page. Craig’s direction is unobtrusive and doesn’t try to be flashy, allowing instead for the performances, setting, and writing to serve as the main attraction. It can’t be easy to write dialogue that dense, smart, and surprising in an age where teens can see and hear it all online with a single click or tap, but the script consistently feels fresh.
Hailee Steinfeld first broke onto the scene with her Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s True Grit. She’s becoming a confident and dynamic actress and she absolutely puts every ounce of energy she has into her role here. At times you can almost feel Nadine’s internal monologue racing throughout her body and screaming to be released. It often seems like she’s a ticking time bomb that might actually spontaneously combust.
This is a movie about a girl sorting her complicated shit out. It’s R-rated, yes, but isn’t obscene – the teen drinking and bad language is par for the course for pretty much any living adolescent, one might argue. By the end of this particular round of growing pains Nadine will undoubtedly learn a lesson or two and maybe something she never knew about herself as well. The influences and clichés of John Hughes ’80s teen comedies perhaps are worn a little too visibly towards the film’s final act but there are worse influences to boast.
If embraced by a wide enough audience, The Edge of Seventeen could rightfully open up a conversation amongst teens about its themes and subject matter, providing some sort of understanding to the indecipherable real-life Nadines out there. Moral weight and social influence aside, most important of all is the fact that The Edge of Seventeen is immensely entertaining from the first shot to the last. It’s a funny, sweet natured, and painfully honest depiction of modern teenage life.
Four out of five!
‘The Edge of Seventeen’ is Rated R and now playing at a theater near you.