It has taken several years, but Hailee Steinfeld has finally landed a follow-up role worthy of her breakout performance in 2010’s True Grit. And one of the great joys of the coming-of-age dramedy The Edge of Seventeen is that her ferociously unsentimental yet often very funny turn as troubled teen Nadine is far from the only attraction of this bracing directorial debut by screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig.
Like Grit’s Mattie Ross, Nadine has a mouth on her, one that she uses as both a weapon and a defense. Wounded by life, she takes every opportunity to verbally wound back, and her words sometimes seem like she’s scripted them in her head beforehand—though it is to Craig and Steinfeld’s great credit that they play as spontaneous in the delivery. The opening scene finds Nadine striding into the classroom of her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), during his lunch break and announcing her intention to kill herself with a monologue that is self-pitying, an ironic address of that self-pity and vaguely insulting to Mr. Bruner all in one. What’s wonderful about the scene, and gets the movie off to a perfect start, is that he responds to none of those and hits back with a hilariously snarky rejoinder of his own. Right up front, from Craig’s lines and Harrelson’s reading of them, it’s clear that Mr. Bruner has become used to Nadine’s attitude, and deals with it in the only sympathetic manner she might respond to.
If she wasn’t such a pain in the butt, more sympathy might come Nadine’s way. She has grown up in the shadow of her perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), who’s at the top of the high-school food chain and, even more infuriatingly, is still a pretty nice guy. Always socially awkward, she found solace in childhood with her protector and confidant of a father (Eric Keenleyside), then tragically lost him when she was just 13. Her life raft has been Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend since they were both elementary-school outcasts, and Nadine’s shield from having to make connections with the rest of the world. Then comes the ultimate betrayal: All the time Krista has spent in the proximity of the handsome, accomplished Darian has the inevitable result, and while there’s no easy way to handle that situation, Nadine inevitably chooses the wrong one—the one that leaves her completely adrift.
While Craig and Steinfeld never sentimentalize or make excuses for Nadine, they understand her completely. The Edge of Seventeen, emotionally if not stylistically, has the feel of a documentary whose creators are capturing a warts-and-all portrait of this young woman while waiting—perhaps hoping against hope—for her to start making the right decisions. Nadine could find happiness, if she would just open herself up to it; she harbors an unrequited crush on a juvenile delinquent (Alexander Calvert), even as it’s clear to us long before it is to her that there’s a soulmate waiting for her in a creatively inclined classmate named Erwin, played winningly by Hayden Szeto. Yet even when the two of them seem headed for a steamy swimming-pool clinch, her blunt offer of affection is a sarcastic joke, and she’s so wrapped up in her defensive mindset that she doesn’t realize how insensitive she’s being. The scene doesn’t end with humiliation, however, but with a smile, as Erwin comes up with just the right musical accompaniment for the moment. Like Mr. Bruner, he’s learning how to deal with Nadine on her own level, in the hopes of reaching her on a deeper one.
The Edge of Seventeen is a gem of a film that transforms potentially downbeat material into human comedy that hums with life, and bursts with fine performances. Everyone in the cast, also including Kyra Sedgwick as Nadine’s long-suffering mother, is spot-on as their characters navigate the roiling river Nadine has made out of her life. And even as Nadine is the film’s sharp, vivid focus, Craig is attuned to the lives of those around her as well, and by the movie’s end, we and Nadine have learned a few surprising things about them.