High school coming of age movies have long been a Hollywood staple. Everyone from the snobbiest cinephiles to Michael Bay enthusiasts has at least one high school coming of age flick sitting somewhere on their all-time list. Over the past 40 years, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Superbad have had huge impacts on the moviegoers growing up with them. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig would like to add her debut film, The Edge of Seventeen to that list. Craig approaches the material with a degree of reverence and sincerity seldom seen in the genre. The result is a clever, funny, and at times bawdy film which paints a striking portrait of modern teenage life.
For a teenage girl, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is quite a curmudgeon. She doesn’t have many friends and she doesn’t want them either. After all, why chase after attention from fake people? Perhaps it’s life at home that makes her so prickly. Nadine lives with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Darian is the family’s golden child. His good looks and charm can melt the heart of any high school girl within a thousand miles. Mona, is far from the maternal ideal. Mona’s children don’t always come first in her life, especially when she’s busy pursuing online dates.
When things get too bad, Nadine vents to her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), an authority figure that she treats like her personal sounding board. There’s also Nadine’s long-time bestie, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Krista’s friendship may be the only thing standing between Nadine becoming a full-fledged misanthrope. With Kayla at her side, Nadine doesn’t need anyone else. That is, until one night when the unthinkable happens: Darian and Kayla hook up. If that wasn’t bad enough, their unholy union isn’t a one off; they become a “thing.” Unable to cope with the betrayal, Nadine makes an ultimatum: My brother or me. Kayla chooses Darian. All alone, with no family or friends to lean on, Nadine must confront the painful truths keeping her from moving forward in life.
Nadine is an intriguing character to pick apart. She’s whip smart and also incredibly sensitive to perceived slights. The second anyone encroaches on her “emotional comfort zone” she lashes out with an insult. It’s one thing to fire off a verbal jab, it’s another to go straight for a killing blow. Nadine doesn’t retaliate so much as she eviscerates. She’s attuned to other people’s insecurities and says the thing that will hurt them the most, the kind of cutting remarks that sting long after the fact. What makes it worse is that Nadine knows better. In a counterintuitive way, this behavior makes Nadine more relatable.
Although we know it’s not the case, Nadine sees herself as the only fish swimming upstream. We can all relate to feeling like an outsider, especially in high school. It’s all too easy to look at the people around us like they have everything figured out. We don’t see how hard others struggle to keep it together on the inside. Nadine is so quick to go on the offensive because she can’t confront any more pain; it’s her defensive mechanism. She puts up walls that protect the big gooey soft spot at her core. Nadine isn’t simply cruel, shes reacting to feeling like an outcast. She makes people leave because it hurts to have them walk away.
Steinfeld’s incredible performance keeps the audience on Nadine’s side. Taking a prickly character like Nadine and transferring her from the page to the screen is a nearly impossible task. It’s a role that could go off the rails and turn audiences off in a number of ways. Against all odds, Steinfeld nails it. Even when Nadine is at her most unlikable, she’s always compelling. Steinfeld consistently shows the audience that Nadine is more than a two-dimensional whiny brat. There is always an underlying sadness fueling her misbehavior. Since we understand why she’s lashing out and because Steinfeld makes us feel Nadine’s pain, we don’t write her off as an annoying character.
So often in high school films, teachers are the butt of the student’s jokes. In The Edge of Seventeen, Mr. Bruner often plays the straight man to Nadine’s histrionics. Watching Bruner, in his low-key way, deflect Nadine’s manic rants is a thing of beauty. It’s a fresh dynamic that makes for some of the film’s standout scenes. Bruner is also not afraid to throw verbal haymakers right back at Nadine whenever her claws come out. “Nobody likes you!” he fires back in one instance.
As their relationship develops, the place they get to feels earned and not like a necessary plot turn. There is a reveal late in the film that adds another wrinkle to their exchanges and it further highlights how little Nadine understands the people around her. Even though Bruner and Nadine verbally spar like equals, Bruner is the authority figure. He has a lifetime of experience dealing with the Nadines of the world and he gives her just enough slack to avoid getting tangled up in her own rope.
The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t push the genre in a new direction like Heathers or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Instead, the film settles into a familiar groove. Why reinvent the wheel when it’s so well suited to get you where you’re going? Craig crafts a realistic world and populates it with everyday people with everyday problems. Although I was never a 17-year old girl, Nadine’s story feels familiar; I couldn’t say that about Superbad or American Pie. The banality of Nadine’s life adds additional texture to an already nuanced character. If you’ve ever felt like an ugly duckling in a world full of swans, then Craig’s witty and poignant tale will resonate. Even if you lean more towards being a Darian than a Nadine, Craig’s fantastic script and Steinfeld’s knockout performance will more than cover your entertainment needs.
Related Topics: Edge of Seventeen