Written & Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
We’ve all been there. Either we’ve been through the riggers of high school and the social structures that weigh heavy on everyone, or perhaps we’re living through that hell right now (at least I presume people who have seen this film, or are reading this review are of the appropriate age – the film is rated R after all). It really is a hell, and I was “lucky” enough to attend an all-boys high school where the drama of dating and relationships was much more subdued. The ache to be popular, or to date the popular, attractive opposite sex (or same sex), the ache to be wanted, to matter to people never seemed more evident than in high school. We all deal with some degree of narcissism throughout our lives, but seventeen, the age of high school, that is where everything seems to come together to create the greatest strain on the psyche, that edge between being a teenager, dependent on parents, siblings, friends, etc. and becoming an adult in a world where you get to make the decisions, where you are forced to fend for yourself.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) begins telling her story back when she was a little younger, with no friends. The story begins when she made her first friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Nadine’s life begins to unravel, however, after she loses her father to a heart attack, right before her eyes. After this traumatic event, she still has Krista, but when Krista begins to cozy up with Nadine’s older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), Nadine feels more and more alone. She finds minimal comfort by crashing her history teacher’s (Woody Harrelson) lunches, but soon those sessions aren’t even enough to console her raging jealousy and feeling of being completely alone. A fellow student, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) shows interest, but Nadine dismisses him as not being cool. It’s a rough world in the high school landscape, and Nadine is clearly struggling to navigate it.
Middle class, white suburbia is never the most sympathetic landscape, but in the case of Nadine, it doesn’t have to be. This is not a film trying to tackle tremendous civil injustices, or to call people to it to pity the circumstance of the well off high school student. There are bigger problems in the world, but that doesn’t also mean that Nadine’s problems aren’t real, and I think that is the first thing writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig gets right about her story, The Edge of Seventeen. Nadine may act as though her problems are bigger than others, and that makes her a little annoying as a character, but Hailee Steinfeld infuses a special touch upon her to make her sympathetic. Her circumstance does suck. Things aren’t going her way. But as is true with many situations like her’s, it just takes taking control of the situation and making positive decisions, finding the silver linings rather than dwelling on the things that aren’t going her way.
And the film is funny. No doubt that is one of the strengths of the film, the ability to get laughs out of these situations because, as I said, these are real problems, but they are a little more petty than Nadine probably thinks they are. The balance Fremon Craig strikes between sympathy for Nadine and also kind of poking fun at her is incredible. In some ways, it is reflective of Mr. Bruner, the history teacher she continually annoys during lunch. At the surface, it appears as though he couldn’t care less about Nadine and her problems, when in fact simply by being there and listening to her he is providing her something she can’t get anywhere else. He is being sympathetic to her while also being a complete smart ass about it. The film does the same thing. While on the surface it is being a smart ass about Nadine and her issues, it has a tremendous amount of sympathy for her as well, which makes the close of the film as affecting as it is.
The ad campaign for the film is touting it as the next Juno, the next The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, etc. I don’t know about all that; the comparisons certainly aren’t off base, but I think the conversation should be more about Hailee Steinfeld and how marvelous she is in this role as the conflicted, perhaps slightly confused, teenager who feels like she’s being left behind. The rest of the cast, in particular Harrelson and Szeto are also quite good, but this film is fueled by the central performance. As Nadine comes to grips with everyone else moving on, with the whole world not being about her, she moves on from being a little annoying to completely sympathetic. Steinfeld handles this transition wonderfully. Look, it’s a little predictable, it’s a little familiar, but somehow The Edge of Seventeen does it better than most.