by Ken Bakely
It’s been a rough few years for Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). Since she was a girl, she’s had trouble making friends. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) has never quite understood her. Her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) has always been more popular and athletic. Really, the only one who’s always been on her side is her father (Eric Keenleyside). Nadine and her dad would often head out to a fast food joint, get some burgers, and bond, and it was one of the few times where she felt protected and happy. This all came to a sudden end when Nadine was thirteen, after her father’s death. In his absence, she feels more alone and forgotten than ever.
Now she is seventeen. She has only one real friend, a girl named Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Yet even their friendship goes south when Krista begins dating– of all people – Darian. Nadine sees this as a kind of betrayal on both ends, and cuts her off. She begins spending her lunch period at school with her caustic history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), where they exchange acidic comments. But under her “whatever” persona, Nadine is deeply insecure. Tinged with uncertainty, grief, and anxiety, she navigates life under the impression that she is the only rational human in a world of misfits. Consequently, she becomes difficult and standoffish, a behavioral trend which leads to some impossible scenarios that force her to re-evaluate her entire worldview.
For the most part, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen is about quite a miserable person. Yet the film itself is so jubilantly focused, so quietly impressive, so dynamically efficient, that there’s never a point where one feels turned off by Nadine’s negativity. It’s a character on a journey, and Craig’s screenplay is aware of the evolution that she must go through. The script has a unique ability to convey this message from the first scene, which sees Nadine bursting into Mr. Bruner’s otherwise empty classroom, and point-blank informing her teacher that she is going to kill herself. She does so with drama and theatrics, going on a long-winded, woe-is-me rant. He doesn’t believe her. She becomes exasperated at the fact that he doesn’t believe her. Right up front, we’re told by the movie that we can’t believe her.
And in this moment, we are told what we need to know about Nadine, establishing much more than the expositional voice-over right after that introduces who everyone is (chronologically, the scene is taken from about halfway through the first act). Steinfeld does tremendous work in making sure that we understand our protagonist, that while her monologues about being born in “the wrong generation” or inexplicable lashings-out are yes, inane, but come from a headspace that is complicated and in need of self-evaluation and a dose of maturity. Through her great acting, what could have been an insufferable character is instead one we can empathize with, who has struggled and has hopes.
The Edge of Seventeen is, above all, a compassionate film in this regard. It’s based in the awkward, funny extremes that its characters find themselves in, but Craig also makes sure to ground her story in a world where there are accessible, universal feelings. No event is beyond reasoning, no situation beyond understanding. The 104 minute movie boasts a colorful, talented cast and a sharp sense of humor. It moves above and beyond the expectations of a coming-of-age film – working beyond the interests of teenage viewers (in fact, it could be argued that its intended audience is inherently older), casting very universal observations on perceptions of one’s self and surroundings, and expressing its philosophy with sensibility and range. This is a genuine story told with palpable warmth and well-centered sense of humanity.