In her film The Edge of Seventeen writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig gives us a film with less a plot and more a series of life events that play out over the course of several weeks. In her performance as Nadine, Hailee Steinfeld (you may recognize her as the girl who at age 14 was nominated for an Academy Award for her turn as Mattie Ross in the Coen Brother’s True Grit remake) gives us less a protagonist and more a point of view through which we experience these events. The Edge of Seventeen is a slice of life film, one that doesn’t worry so much about classic plot construction and conflict, and more about showing us a character, a tumultuous time in that character’s life, and the way they develop in response.
Our main character Nadine is a smart, but very self conscious and awkward girl who tends to view everything in her life in the negative and believes she only has one friend in the whole world. This one friend is Krista, played by Haley Lu Richardson. Krista has been Nadine’s best friend since second grade, so she is close not only to Nadine, but to her entire family, which since the death of her father (Eric Keenleyslide) consists of her near perfect brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and her wreck of a mother (Kyra Sedgewick). Rounding out the cast are her teacher and confidant Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and the guy who sits next to Nadine in class who has a crush on her, Erwin (Hayden Szeto). The cast is wonderful, truly understanding these characters and really bringing them to life in realistic fashion. Most real enough to be familiar, but distinct enough that none seem like a stereotype, and are characters worth investing in. I say most because Haley Lu Richardson as Krista is the one performance that stands out as bland, fake, and amateurish marring what otherwise is a spectacular ensemble performance.
The actors would have had a harder time giving us such fantastic performances, though, if they weren’t given an equally fantastic screenplay to work with. Everything is absolutely pertinent to anyone who has attended high school or had a family, yet it still has sharp dialogue that never seems too much nor out of place, great pacing even though there really is no climactic event to be building toward, and very thorough and realistic development of character with not a single person being quite the same at the end as they were at the start, yet none changing purely to further a plot device, it’s all organic and natural yet still often surprising.
One of the very notable problems, if you can call it that, with The Edge of Seventeen is the very Hollywood problem of casting people far too suave and good looking to really be taken seriously as loner outcasts. Hailee as Nadine sort of pulls it off, as one of the primary themes of the movie is that we often make our own problems and push others away due to self absorption, but it still seemed to me that in any normal high school she would at least be in the popular clique if not the queen bee herself, and this problematic trope really stands out with Hayden Setzo as Erwin. When you have abs that would make most gymnasts jealous, a fashion model face, and millionaire parents, I don’t think you would be viewed as a geek who has to hide in your bedroom and draw cartoons to get through life. Sure, another of the big messages in the movie is that no one is a sterotype, the outcasts among us aren’t as lonely as they think and the popular kids still have problems, but there is not a single person in this entire high school who seems like they wouldn’t have scores of ardent admirers in any real high school in America.
The Edge of Seventeen probably won’t go down in history as a classic of the high school coming of age genre, but it really is an excellent example of one all the same. There is nothing here truly unique or original, but it is so magnificently well done, it really doesn’t have to be to still pull you in and get you heavily invested in its characters. It’s incredibly difficult to make a character that over the space of only a couple hours frustrates you to no end, yet whom you still just want to hug and help out in any way you can, and Hailee pulls off that very difficult stunt in her turn as Nadine. After True Grit, I’d wondered what had happened to her as I saw in her someone who had amazing potential. I’m very glad to see she’s back, and that potential is still there and very much being realized.
Rating: 7.2 out of 10
(I do realize Hailee Steinfeld was also in Pitch Perfect 2, but…. I haven’t seen it yet. I know, I know.)