Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
Written by Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto and Alexander Calvert
Runtime: 104 minutes
Films about teenagers often reek of adults trying to relate or reconnect with adolescence and that seldom, if ever works (a notable exception is Thirteen which was co-written by the director’s step-daughter (or boyfriend’s daughter) while she was not far off from the titular age). Every once in a while, though, something shines though and makes us forget that a movie about teenagers is inherently written by an adult. The Edge of Seventeen is such a film mainly because it doesn’t try to capture the teen experience, but a teen’s experience.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld, best known for her Oscar-nominated role in the Coen’s True Grit) is the very definition of ‘awkward teen’. She is sixteen with no other friends but Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), with whom she spends copious amounts of time. He has an openly volatile and contentious relationship with her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), which got worse after her father died. The only adult she feels comfortable talking to is her English teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). She has a crush on Nick (Alexander Calvert), a kid who doesn’t know who she is either because she’s not someone who really stands out or because he spends as much time in juvie as he does in school and she also has an admirer in Erwin (Hayden Szeto), but she can’t see that he likes her because of her belief that everyone and everything is against her.
The screenplay, by director Kelly Fremon Craig, goes a long way to capturing Nadine and those around her as real people. Never once does Craig try to say that this is how all teenagers feel, just Nadine, and in so doing, she paints a realistic portrait of the awkwardness of the teenage years. She gives us everything from Nadine’s point of view, so we of course sympathize with her when Krista starts dating her brother and ditches her for more popular friends, without seeing it as Krista does which is just an evolution of herself. Craig puts in glimpses of how the other characters feel as they try to break through Nadine’s myopic worldview, but that myopia is what keeps her from empathizing with anyone else. When one character finally breaks through, it changes Nadine in a believable way. Craig expertly writes the depression that can set in during high school (though for Nadine, it seems to have started much earlier) and for that, she earns due praise.
It’s Steinfeld, though, that brings the screenplay to life. Her performance as Nadine is fantastic. She disappears into the character and fully embraces Nadine’s quirks and understands the root of Nadine’s actions (depression caused by being kind of an odd duck, coupled with the death of her father and a mother that never takes the time to listen and understand her). Keeping complete pace with Steinfeld is Harrelson in another of his great performances. He’s caustic and sarcastic yet understanding and tender at the same time. Knowing that Nadine is in a very difficult place in her life, he wants to help her as much as he wants her to help herself. Sedgwick gives an equally powerhouse performance as a grieving mother that is just as self-absorbed as her daughter. There’s a scene with Sedgwick and Steinfeld that sums up their relationship: in the car after Mona picks up Nadine from a disastrous party (where Krista basically ditches her to play beer pong with new friends she got by dating Darian), Mona asks how the party went. As Nadine starts to recount her horrible night, Mona cuts her off to tell her about her bad night and never circles back around to an aghast Nadine.
Despite all this great work, there’s something holding the film back. Largely, it’s due to formulaic storytelling and some bad pacing in the middle. The amount of troubles piling up on Nadine gets a little monotonous (but not for long). There are scenes that go on for a little too long and that ends up robbing those scenes of their inherent punch. These are often problems that beset a first-time director, as Craig is. Over time, these issues shouldn’t be a problem because she shows great promise. She’s got a lot of writing talent and directing takes practice (even Stanley Kubrick’s first few films weren’t very good. Scorsese’s either).
The Edge of Seventeen works on so many other levels that the problems are easily overlooked. It’s a solid film with some great performances and an excellent script. It’s fun, touching and never too sweet or unrealistic, yet it still retains a fantastic sense of humor and is really funny throughout.