The best movies, regardless of genre, are based on truth.
And that’s what makes THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016), a coming of age comedy-drama about seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), so enjoyable. It comes across as oh-so-true.
Nadine is the ugly duckling in her family, forever living in the shadow of her near-perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Through voice-over narration, we follow Nadine’s difficult childhood, from dealing with school bullies to butting heads with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) who gets along much better with her son Darian. Nadine’s one champion is her father Tom (Eric Keenleyside), but in a tragic moment symbolic of her entire childhood, he suffers a fatal stroke behind the wheel of their car while Nadine watches helplessly from the passenger seat.
As she turns seventeen, the one positive for Nadine is her relationship with her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). The two girls are inseparable, and being with Krista is the one time Nadine feels happy. This all comes to a dramatic halt when suddenly Krista starts dating Nadine’s brother Darian. For Nadine, this is a betrayal and is something she cannot handle.
Now feeling absolutely alone, Nadine finds herself at her lowest point ever. While she continually pours out her troubles to her stoic seemingly non-caring teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) who in spite of his constant snarky comments is always there to listen to her, she adores the hunky Nick (Alexander Calvert) from afar. She also finds new hope in quirky Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a fellow student who is obviously very interested in her. Trouble is, she’s not that interested in him.
Sure, this story is nothing new, but what is refreshing and incredibly satisfying about THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is the script and direction, both by Kelly Fremon Craig, and the excellent acting performances.
I loved Craig’s script. The dialogue is sharp, frequently hilarious, and right on the money in terms of what it’s like to be seventeen. It also especially nails the contentious relationship between Nadine and her mother. One of movie’s best moments— and there are many of them— is when near the end of the film Nadine texts her mom that she’s safe, and her mother struggles to respond, writing and then deleting angry, fearful texts before finally settling on “OK.” It’s a poignant moment, one that many parents have to deal with, that battle between being protective and letting go.
But the best part of the script is the humor. I laughed out loud quite a bit during this movie. Some of the funnier scenes are between Nadine and Erwin— their scene on the Ferris wheel together is a hoot. The scenes between Nadine and Mr. Bruner are also very funny.
The serious scenes are equally as good. The moment where Nadine becomes the punchline of a conversation about the movie TWINS (1987) is pointedly painful. Likewise, the touching moment near the end of the film where Darian confronts Nadine is satisfyingly powerful.
Craig’s direction is just as good. The film is lively, quickly paced, and full energy. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is not a superficial raunchy teen comedy. On the contrary, it’s a deeply moving comedy-drama about a teenage girl dealing with her troubled life while searching for some meaning to it all.
The acting is wonderful. Hailee Steinfeld is excellent as Nadine, and she easily carries this movie. While Steinfeld was particularly memorable several years ago in the remake of TRUE GRIT (2010), I actually enjoyed her more here. She captures the teen angst which Nadine experiences and makes it real. She’s believable as a character who just wants to fit in, who wants to have friends, wants to have a boyfriend, but who feels so alienated from other people her own age. One of the funniest and most insightful scenes is when Nadine goes off on her generation’s incessant use of texting on their phones.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is Steinfeld’s movie and she owns it. But she has a fine supporting cast as well.
Haley Lu Richardson is sincere and likable as Nadine’s best friend Krista. It’s clear that she’s devastated that her new relationship with Darian has damaged her lifelong one with Nadine. In another powerful scene, the moment where Nadine forces Krista to choose between her and her brother is one of the best scenes in the movie. Krista initially refuses, but with her back against the wall, she chooses Darian.
Hayden Szeto is particularly good as the nerdy Erwin. Other than Steinfeld, I think Szeto gives the best performance in the film. Erwin is obviously a good person, but Szeto’s performance lifts Erwin above the cliched “nice guy.” First off, he’s as uncomfortable about relationships as Nadine is, but unlike Nadine, he’s coming from a happier place inside. You are really rooting for him to win her over.
Kyra Sedgwick is also excellent at Nadine’s mom, Mona. It’s clear that the reason Mona and Nadine butt heads so much is because they are so similar. Mona is absolutely lost after her husband dies, and afterwards she is just as miserable as her daughter. Sedgwick does a fantastic job emoting her pain and unhappiness. You can see it all over her face. But Mona is not a hopeless lost parent. Sure, she struggles and is not going to win any parent of the year awards, but she continues to fight. One of her more telling scenes is when she gets into a shouting match with her son and she uses the line “I’m the adult here!” to which Darian replies, “Then why do you always call me?” And at that moment Mona realizes that he’s right, and that she’s been relying on him too much, because as she realizes she has no one else.
Blake Jenner is okay as Darian, and Woody Harrelson does his job as droll Mr. Bruner. He’s not a particularly effective teacher. We see him showing movies to his class and teaching them with as much enthusiasm as a study hall monitor, and he speaks to Nadine in ways that could easily get him fired if overheard, but the bottom line is in his own way he’s there for Nadine. He is her constant listener, and later when she finds herself absolutely alone, it’s Bruner who she turns to, and he doesn’t let her down. One of his better lines comes late in the movie as he drives her back to her house: “I know this has to be said, and there’s no other way to say it, so I’ll just come out and say it. Get out of the car.”
I really enjoyed THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN. While it reminded me of how happy I am that I’m not seventeen anymore, it also captured the promise and energy of what it feels like to have your whole life ahead of you. Of course, it also captured the pressure, which gives an entirely different meaning to the “edge” in the title. Rather than being on the verge of seventeen, “edge” here can easily refer to the intensity and sharpness of the age.