If you’re a filmmaker trying to make a movie about teen girl angst, you better damn well have something new or original to say, because you’ll always be competing with classics like Mean Girls, Clueless, and even Fast Times at Ridgemont High. With her directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen, Kelly Fremon Craig (Post Grad) proves she has what it takes to compete with the best of them, creating a young adult movie with a unique voice, even if the story and situations may sound familiar.
On the surface, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) seems like your typical 17-year-old outcast who hates her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and her popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). For some reason, Nadine only has one friend at school and that’s her bestie Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), but when Krista hooks up with Darian at a party, Nadine completely freaks out because she doesn’t have anyone else to talk to except her cranky history teacher (Woody Harrelson).
The film actually opens with a scene between Steinfeld and Harrelson, as Nadine proclaims she’s going to kill herself. Instead of a sympathetic ear, her teacher basically tells her to stand in line, because he’s tired of having his lunch break disturbed by whiny students. That opening scene immediately sets the mood of the film, making it obvious Craig is going to give the film a dark and snarky tone. She quickly proves herself as a writer capable of capturing the voice of young people, but also instilling her own personality into the characters – something we see as we quickly get a flashback to Nadine at seven when she first meets Krista, and to thirteen, when her supportive father dies, forcing her to fare with her mother and brother without him.
More than anything, The Edge of Seventeen is going to be remembered for giving Hailee Steinfeld a role that allows her to show far more range than in previous movies, delivering Nadine’s rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness dialogue with relative ease. She has so many great scenes with each of the other characters, including Blake Jenner and Kyra Sedgiwck, but none are more special than her adorably awkward moments with the nerdy Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who asks Nadine out.
Her scenes with Woody Harrelson are also quite fun, and if there’s any doubt that Harrelson is a national treasure, then his performance as Nadine’s equally snarky (but supportive) history teacher pretty much clinches him as an actor who can make any well-written scene even funnier. Maybe it’s not as surprising that Steinfeld is capable of going toe-to-toe with him just as she did with Jeff Bridges in the Coens’ True Grit.
We’ve seen elements of Nadine’s woes in plenty of other movies and television shows for sure, but Nadine isn’t Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Nadine interacts with others, always using a snarky wit that makes you realize that maybe she’s pushing people away that are trying to be friends with her. Either way, Craig has written such a terrific well-rounded character, and Steinfeld’s performance makes Nadine someone who is easy to relate to, regardless of your age or gender. You’re there with her every step of her journey, even as she does things that might seem out of character.
In fact, it’s nice to see one of those all too rare coming-of-age movies where someone goes through something and actually comes out the other side better and more mature than before. Sure, this is the type of thing that only happens in movies, but Craig has created a teen angst movie that stands up to many of the beloved classics.
If ever there was a modern movie capable of creating the type of fan obsession that Clueless or TV’s My So-Called Life did in the ‘90s, then The Edge of Seventeen is probably it.
This review originally ran on Sept. 18, 2016 after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.