Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a troubled and very abrasive high school junior who manages to slog through everyday life until her best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) sleeps with her seemingly perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). When they become a couple, Nadine goes to extreme lengths to cope with not only the fractured relationship, but her own awkward behaviour and social life.
One of the most impressive things about this movie is the realism. Unlike in a lot of teen movies, the characters in this film act like real teenagers. And it makes you much more invested when the film can legitimately transport you as an adult back to that time in life. Just as in real life, these characters swear liberally, use sexual vocabulary, are sexually active, and drink alcohol. There’s no attempt to sugar-coat how they behave and live their lives which is really refreshing. Often they act on impulse, and we see especially in Nadine a disregard for conventional authority.
Nadine’s every action in this movie is based on emotion, and she’s continually trying to find some kind of direction, or at least a remedy to her confusion and alienation. And Steinfeld plays her excellently. Though you frequently disagree with her actions, they’re understandable given what we know about her character through a backstory early on. But even then it’s not so simple. Teen movies have a hard task in that most conflicts therein are relatively first-world problems. Nadine’s attempts to get her crush to notice her, her insecurity about her appearance, and fear that she’s losing her long-time friend aren’t high stakes except to her. But at some point these things were just as important to any of us. Steinfeld perhaps because of her age taps into this character’s disoriented psychology well, but also conveys it identifiably through an impassioned and dedicated performance. This may even be an Oscar-calibre performance.
All the supporting characters are more or less defined through their relationship to Nadine. Richardson plays the hurt friend very well, and Jenner (who’s back in high school after playing a college student in Everybody Wants Some) is really good as well. Anyone with a sibling can in some way relate to how they treat each other. And you can see how living in his shadow has affected Nadine’s personality and makes the “betrayal” feel ever more resonant. Kyra Sedgwick is good as Nadine’s put-upon mother, who also has a very troubled relationship with her due to favouring Darian. A fellow student called Erwin who’s role in the story is pretty obvious, is mostly likeable, an introvert who wants to be an extrovert, though occasionally he’s a little too awkward. The show-stealer though is Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s history teacher Mr. Bruner, who’s both her confidant and punching bag. The rapport these two have where despite the fact she’s a student, he’s constantly mocking her, is tremendous. He’s a very fun spin on the inspiring teacher character. And one joke he has that was in most of the trailers, makes me, an English grad laugh every time.
Much of the plot in this movie is standard for the genre. It’s got a lot that you’ve seen before. But The Edge of Seventeen manages to make its clichés feel brand new. I think because of Steinfeld’s performance, the largely true portrayal of teenage life, and even some deeper notions make this possible. The final act of this movie looks like it’s setting up one of a few clichés but actually plays out in a more mature way than I expected. The theme of what you think you want versus what you actually want plays a part. There are also good messages about empathy and self-worth. These ideas and the way the film examines teenage issues makes this a great movie for teens, that also doesn’t talk down to them. Who was the last director that did that really well?
Yeah, the critics aren’t unjustified in comparing The Edge of Seventeen favourably to the works of John Hughes. It’s certainly one of the most honest coming-of-age teen movies since his films of the 80s. The fact that it’s also incredibly funny and one of the best written films of the year is a bonus. Fremon Craig like Hughes, really understands this subject matter and it makes for an unexpectedly great film that speaks to everyone.