Some of the best comedies distinguish the touching hysterical irony of life’s joy and tragedy, and celebrate the very best in people in life’s paradox. “The Edge of Seventeen” is that and much more. First time Director and Writer Kelly Fremon Craig masterfully navigates that fine line between cleverer than thou and the reckoning of one’s self. Craig captures the natural speak of high school kids without some of the pretense of “Juno.”
“The Edge of Seventeen” makes you burst out loud with laughter, and touches your heart. Hailee Steinfeld makes this all possible. What a revelation. I remember Hailee from the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit”— phenomenal. Here she is a star. Steinfeld’s performance is funny, vulnerable, and fearless. Hers is one the year’s best as well.
“The Edge of Seventeen” begins somewhere in the middle of the story. Steinfeld’s teen drama queen supreme Nadine interrupts her favorite teacher Mr. Brunner played by Woody Harrelson, “I’m gonna kill myself.” After a deadpan stare, Mr. Brunner reads Nadine his own drafted suicide note. Steinfeld artfully invents Nadine as worthy of love, even when she says the vilest things. She tells literally her only friend in the world Krista (big hearted Hailey Lu Richardson) to choose between her and Nadine’s brother Darian (dashing and surprising Blake Jenner). On the ferris wheel ride with Korean American Erwin (good-looking and whimsical Hayden Szeto), the charming animation nerd who is so in love with Nadine, she spews out a comical stereotype rift about of his parents. Then she admits, “All of it was racist.” Craig and Steinfeld compassionately walk that fine line with inspired humor.
In a defining story arc, following a drunken indulgence Nadine weeps to Krista, “I’ve got to spent the rest of my life … with myself.” This is heartbreaking. Her self-loathing is visceral and sad. Growing up in her eyes, older brother Darian was her parents’ favorite. Not at all his fault. She constantly clashed with her mom, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), who just did not get her. Fortunately, her Dad Tom (patient and kind Eric Cooper) was not so much the buffer between Nadine and her Mom, but rather the only one who could calm the fear deep in Nadine. As Nadine narrates: everything tragically altered when she was 13 years old. She was with her Dad when he unexpectedly passed way.
Now 17 years old Nadine is a junior in high school and in seemingly self-imposed exile with her only friend Krista (Richardson). Darian (Jenner) is the high school teenage god—handsome, smart, popular, and captain of the football team. Mona (Sedgwick) is the overwhelmed single Mom, venturing in the perils of online dating, and grateful for raising her perfect son. Nadine yearns for hot, mysterious loner Nick (Alexander Calvert), who works at the local Pet Land. She indifferently dismisses Erwin (Szeto), who wears the crush for her on his sleeve. History teacher Mr. Brunner (Harrelson) is Nadine’s only adult confidant and caustic reality check.
Hailee Steinfeld is radiant, pretty, and killer smart as Nadine. She wears the uniform skirt and cool shoes as eclectic couture. Outwardly, she would not occur as social pariah. Steinfeld naturally realizes her social outcast with Nadine’s merciless words and her tragic refusal to love herself. All are armor to cover the hurt buried within her.
Waking up from a hangover, Nadine catches Krista handling Darian in a bedroom tryst. Nadine reacts like Nadine, and life spirals out of control. She loses her only friend. Her desired rendezvous materializes and is nearly costly—strikingly and gently envisioned by Craig and Steinfeld. On the bright side she begins to see the wonderful guy in Erwin. Now if she could only just shut up long enough. Nadine’s words have a mind of their own: both a curse and an expression of her miraculous being.
Director and Writer Craig eloquently has Nadine’s back. Darian and Krista might have been revealed as selfish jerks. Instead Jenner and Richardson only have unconditional love for Nadine. Jenner is impressively strong in the scene with his Mom. He reminds that though she is the only adult in the house, she calls him when there is trouble. The theater was silent as he and Nadine say, “Good night.” Sedgwick’s vulnerability strengthens the desperation and spirit of their Mom. Szeto is disarmingly brave and humorously clumsy as Erwin, who really sees Nadine’s beautiful soul. Harrelson is subtle comic genius, and anchors “The Edge of Seventeen”. As Mr. Brunner, we like Nadine underestimate him. Harrelson’s hysterical cynicism masks the most generous soul. He sees the possibility of greatness in Nadine, even though she can’t, yet.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is a wonderful surprise. Hailee Steinfeld is witty and boldly human as Nadine reluctantly emerges as the hero in her own story. Her performance is raw: we feel her agony, fear, and joy. We pull for her Nadine to love thine own self. Above all Nadine deserves to love and be loved. We can all see the possibility of this for ourselves as well. “The Edge of Seventeen” is one of the best movies of the year. Thank you, Hailee and Kelly. You’ve done great.
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