Teenage Woes: "Edge of Seventeen" a genre breakthrough with smart script and Steinfeld's appealingly acerbic turn

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
104 min., rated R.

Teenage angst is hardly a beacon of originality in the annals of high school cinema, but most paramount is in how it is executed. Like what 1995’s “Clueless” did for Alicia Silverstone, 2010’s “Easy A” for Emma Stone and, most recently, 2015’s “The DUFF” for Mae Whitman, “The Edge of Seventeen” is a delightful showcase for Hailee Steinfeld, who hasn’t had a role this rich and appealing since her Oscar-nominated screen debut in 2010’s “True Grit.” Beyond just a mere vehicle to watch the teenage actress shine in a lead role, the film breaks ground by pinpointing exactly how it feels to be a teenager, from first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig’s script that observes and crackles with wit, edge and wisdom. Far from being just another trite, generic teen movie, “The Edge of Seventeen” deserves to be seen by anyone who has ever been a teenager, whether that ship has sailed twelve years or forty years ago.

A self-loathing self-proclaimed “old soul,” 17-year-old Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld) has never had it easy, and she has never been one to mince words. Since the 2nd grade, she has only really had her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and her supportive, fun-loving father (Eric Keenleyside) as her two lifelines. Five years after being a witness to her father’s fatal heart attack, Nadine grew up but realizes life as a teenager only gets worse from there. She still lives in the shadow of her popular, good-looking jock of a brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), not helped by her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) always doting the golden sibling and playing favorite. When Nadine discovers that Krista has hooked up with Darian and actually starts dating him, her world suddenly implodes and she feels alone.

Honest, affecting and whip-smart, “The Edge of Seventeen” is a breath of fresh air that flips the script of the coming-of-age dramedy majority. From the growing pains, to the awkwardness in social situations, to everything feeling important and magnified when things don’t go one’s way, the film gets the teenage experience right and captures the minor little details that some teen comedies might forget. Though all of that makes it sound very banal and full of bittersweet emotion, it is also very funny from how snappily acerbic yet authentic the dialogue reads when spoken by a hyper-verbal species of characters. Any of these people on screen could have played as types, too, but there is compassion for all, and it’s a testament to the cast being granted wonderful writing that allows each of them time and nuanced beats to fully form their characters. 

As a movie character, Nadine is a true original with a voice and style all her own. In charge of bringing life to the lead role, Hailee Steinfeld is disarming and completely sympathetic, naturally likable and yet so game to let Nadine’s angsty flaws hang out. Even though our protagonist is a relatable outsider, the film allows Nadine to be petty, selfish, uninhibited, complicated and even self-absorbed. Besides, we don't go to the movies to see characters do the right thing or act like an angel all the time. As she later evolves on her own time, the viewer never stops caring and rooting for her to regain her footing. Woody Harrelson is a terrifically lovable foil for Steinfeld’s Nadine, taking it and dishing it out and just being a good listener as sardonic, cooler-than-most history teacher Mr. Bruner. The two of them have such an effortless teacher-student back-and-forth together that one has no problem buying the time Nadine tries using her father’s five-years-too-late death as an excuse to why she was absent in class to which Mr. Bruner responds with a smart-ass quip that somehow doesn’t come off mean-spirited or insensitive. Same goes for Nadine coming to him for advice after mistakenly sending a dirty text message to her bad-boy crush, Nick (Alexander Calvert), that describes in detail what she wants to do to him and what she wants him to do to her in his pet-store workplace.

No one is a villain here, not even Nadine’s mother Mona or brother Darian, nicely played by Kyra Sedgwick and Blake Jenner (2016’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”), respectively, who are drawn with more depth than at first meets the eye. Haley Lu Richardson (2016’s “The Bronze”) also has a radiant spark about her as Krista, who doesn’t intentionally betray Nadine but merely follows her own passion. Like nearly every character, we see where Krista is coming from. Finally but surely not least, relative newcomer Hayden Szeto is a major find as Erwin Kim, an artistically talented but awkwardly flirtatious classmate who has always held a torch for Nadine. Adorably quirky and exceedingly charismatic, Szeto holds the viewer in a grinning frenzy with every line or facial expression he owns. Erwin happens to be Asian, and yet, his ethnicity is never stereotyped or commented on, and never forces the character into a broad, cartoonish box; he isn't Long Duk Dong all over again.

“The Edge of Seventeen” ends with the perfect balance of sweetness and tidiness, hitting the necessary beats without ever turning maudlin. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig packs in lovely final notes between Nadine, her mother, her brother and best friend, but the one between her and Erwin is the most blissful as a counterpoint to Nadine feeling left out at a party when she tags along with Darian and Krista. There is no bet, no prom, and no world-stopping speech in front of a crowd that demands a slow clap. It is a special film, the kind that could certainly define a generation and gain instant rewatchability because it most definitely makes the viewer laugh and feel moved in a single sitting. It may be about a 17-year-old girl, but the close-minded notion that “The Edge of Seventeen” looks like nothing more than a light, snarky diversion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Grade: A -