After a point, virtually every teen movie has to answer the same question: how do you find authentic drama and pathos within a period of life characterized by a general lack of macro-level problems? Sure, much of the “melodrama” typically associated with teenagers is easy enough to look back on and laugh about. You can declare it as the functions of a totally different person than who you eventually became. But the anxiety of being a teenager is also pretty simple: that’s around the point in life at which a person comes to realize how ultimately alone they really are in the world. That you can have family, and friends, but they all have their own lives that will inevitably concern them more than yours sooner or later.
The Edge of Seventeen picks up with Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) right around that point in life. Nadine is the kind of whip-sarcastic type that tends to foreground high school comedies like these, but she’s also miserable in more than the everyday Daria sense. After losing her father, her family has each carried on in their own way: her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is a perpetual ball of stress trying to balance her own emotional needs with taking care of two kids on her own, her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is trying to live the life of a normal, happy, generally popular and well-liked teenager to Nadine’s dismay, and Nadine? Her hyper-awareness of her own social awkwardness (real and perceived alike) has turned her into the kind of teenager with little regard for those who can function “normally.”
Kelly Fremon-Craig’s directorial debut (and second feature-length screenplay) wisely understands that Nadine is only a sympathetic figure up to a point. She’s been through a lot, but her pain tends to manifest itself in stubbornness at best, and aggression after that. The mere day-to-day trudge through a high school she can’t wait to escape weighs enough on her, and that’s before life actually starts to be thrown into upheaval, when she catches her lifelong best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) in bed with Darian. Now, to Nadine, her mom is too busy to notice how deeply she’s hurting, her best friend has chosen the side of the enemy, and the most understanding party in her life is her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who responds to Nadine’s unrelenting self-pity with the same kind of sarcasm she uses on everybody else. She can’t stand him, but also finds herself eating lunch in his classroom from time to time.
A lesser teen dramedy would allow that particular brand of huffy indignation to dictate its tone, but Fremon-Craig’s screenplay fires on a smarter, often more thoughtful level throughout. (The film is executive produced by James L. Brooks, who’s made a career on this sort of thing.) Though The Edge of Seventeen absolutely deals in stock types, the types here are better drawn than they typically tend to be. Mona is the absentee parent, but she’s also a woman equally struggling with grief and with the reality that her life doesn’t really belong to her anymore. Mr. Bruner is the wise teacher ready to dispense sagely advice, but he also knows the difference between a kid who’s genuinely on the edge and one who thinks they are. They’re well drawn, and helped along by one simple fact: this is often a very funny movie, in its dry and refreshingly hijinks-free way. The film’s biggest laughs are always rooted in character, and it’s a better movie for it.
That depth extends to the film’s lead performance, its other ace in the hole. Though The Edge of Seventeen throws itself in a sprawling number of narrative directions, Steinfeld makes for the kind of assured presence that holds the film’s many disparate, sometimes meandering threads together. Nadine is funny, and angry, and loyal, and mean, and immature, and in genuine pain down beneath all that, and the actress is able to find those notes in even some of the film’s smaller moments, whether it’s her making stumbling conversation with Erwin (Hayden Szeto), an attractive and clearly interested classmate, or attempting to work up the nerve to seduce her obscure crush at the local Petsmart. Nadine rarely seems to believe that she’s wanted in any room she’s in, and Steinfeld finds the smaller notes of narcissism and vulnerability so common in that particular kind of teenager. It’s a vulnerable, magnetic turn, and it keeps the film engaging no matter how unwieldy it gets at times.
And it absolutely does. The double-edged sword in the case of a film like this one is that its tornado of everyday drama may reflect Nadine’s overall worldview, but it also makes for a tonally haphazard film. Fremon-Craig’s screenplay is rife with arch, effective one-liners, but they can only do so much to cover for a structure that brings up a substantial number of stories and often drops them in dissatisfying fashion. Nadine’s relationship with Erwin makes for some of the film’s sweeter, more realistic moments, but it disappears for long stretches. Sedgwick does well at bringing some sense of an inner life to Mona, who’s about had it with having to pull her near-adult daughter out of the car to get her to go to school, but she too seems to fade and reappear without much preamble. Many of the film’s plotlines are approached this way, with much of the material between the initial conflict and the emotional payoff disappearing into the fray.
Yet The Edge of Seventeen has more than enough earnestness of heart to make up for its structural shortcomings. It’s a teen film with an uncommonly honest ear for interactions, whether in the stumbling cadence of Nadine and Edwin’s first date, the quickly escalating tension of a late-film hookup gone wrong, or Nadine and Krista’s eventual arguments, the latter of which go to the venomous places that so many fights between close friends do. Nadine isn’t perfect, and sometimes she’s not even all that kind. But The Edge of Seventeen has the perspective, beneath the humor, to realize that even flawed and caustic people deserve to find peace. And yeah, being a teenager is rarely the hardest that life will get for most people, but here’s a movie that understands how it can still suck pretty thoroughly in the meantime.