In her directorial debut, Kelly Fremon Craig has nailed the awkward world of teenage angst in The Edge of Seventeen. Starring Academy Award Nominee Hailee Steinfeld, this coming-of-age film showcases some incredible acting talent, a real command of language, a distinctive comedic voice, and strong plotting elements. Though that peculiar brand of teenage ennui is apparent, there is an undeniable emotion and heart at the core of this story. Sometimes sad and angry, other times exalted and jubilant – and then right back to sad and angry, The Edge of Seventeen belongs right beside the classic coming-of-age films for portraying the challenge of growing up with practically perfect execution.
Like most films in this genre, the plot is mostly a skeleton on which to flesh-out characters and their experiences. Here, the main players are Nadine (Steinfeld) and her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who navigate the perils of high school with each other’s support. They crush on boys, drink too much during their own two-person parties, and are generally inseparable. That is, until Krista falls for Nadine’s older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). This rift is at the heart of the story, and serves to isolate Nadine from her greatest ally for the majority of her adventures.
Nadine frequently butts heads with her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), and without Krista to unload on she turns to her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). Both of these adult characters are wonderfully realized, partially flawed, and an absolute treasure to experience on screen. Nadine and her mother bicker and fight like the best mother-daughter duo, but there are also genuine moments of support and tenderness between them. Nadine’s relationship with Mr. Bruner is more fun for the audience – the two share a sardonic, dark sense of humor that has them repeatedly joking about death, sexual awkwardness, and other supposedly “off-the-table” topics given their respective ages. Once Krista and Nadine become estranged, this relationship is the heart of the film, and there are some interesting surprises in store for the audience.
The plot is more involved than I have mentioned here, but I have spoiled as little as possible. The Edge of Seventeen boasts some of the best plotting of the year, with many instances of foreshadowing, payoff, and surprise. It only seems right to allow interested parties to experience every little side road that the film places before you.
This also serves the review quite well, as this film is much more character study than anything else. Fortunately, there are astounding characters all-around, and powerful performances to go with them. Steinfeld inhabits the character of Nadine, and she has plenty to do. There are frustrated outbursts, moments of helpless sadness, and even tear-jerking apologies that may hit too close to home for many viewers. Sedgwick and Harrelson are also great in supporting roles, and lend a real maturity to the film. Altogether, this entire cast elevates the already strong material, and the film is much better for it.
The sense of humor in this film is focused and pithy. Comedy is fairly personal, so I would understand if some viewers balk at the humor in The Edge of Seventeen. It is a coarser movie than I expected, and sports many foul-mouthed insults and blunt sex comedy. There’s also an astounding amount of sarcasm. Most of the relationship between Nadine and Mr. Bruner is based on their shared appreciation for sarcasm. This tone helps to establish the mood of the film – dry, acerbic, and kind of fed-up with all the bullshit that life has to offer (or, at least that it has to offer an awkward teenager). It is less idiosyncratic than something like Juno, but The Edge of Seventeen is far more realistic and endearing.
Because the themes of this film are universal. Nadine struggles with loneliness, feeling like an outcast, and finding her way through life and how to like the person that she is. She’s beset with challenges, and does not always succeed in besting them – and sometimes she can be quite the petulant little brat. That alone is a piece of brilliance, as it is easy to get the audience to fall for the viewpoint of the main protagonist, but takes a great deal of care to show them that she can be wrong, too. Of course, this is especially appropriate for teenagers, who always know that they are 100% right and can make no mistakes. But this is all part of the process of growing up, and this film succeeds in displaying these themes wonderfully. It’s all well-developed and completely relatable, and there are some poignant payoffs in the conclusion of the film.
The Edge of Seventeen revels in the bittersweet and the sardonic, but its success lay in how it displays the reality of growing through adolescence while simultaneously hinting that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Craig’s film is certainly not all sunshine and roses – but it isn’t just rainstorms and thorns, either. The struggle is genuine, emotional, and challenging. But there are paths through the teenage years, paths which include growing more considerate, more empathetic, and more conscious of one’s own choices and desires. The Edge of Seventeen maps out the roads of this winding labyrinth, and celebrates them.