Everyone knows that growing up is hard, and life is no easier for high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until the unexpected friendship of a thoughtful boy (Hayden Szeto) gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all.
There exist certain fundamental truths in life that we all take for granted. What goes up must eventually come down, water is wet, and high school sucks. The coming-of-age teenage tale has almost become a film genre in its own right over the years, and plenty of movies have managed to put their own unique spin on the formula. While Kelly Fremon Craig doesn’t necessarily break the mold from a stylistic standpoint with The Edge of Seventeen, she more than makes up for it by crafting a heartfelt, pathos-driven coming-of-age story that would make John Hughes incredibly proud.
The Edge of Seventeen centers on an objectively ordinary premise, and that’s basically the point. Placing its focus on a young 17-year-old girl named Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), the film follows her as she struggles to find her place in life, while simultaneously facing off with an overbearing single mother (Kyra Sedwick), as well as a romantic entanglement between her best (read: only) friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and her golden boy brother (Blake Jenner). As Nadine’s few social lifelines start to drift away from her, she falls down a rabbit hole of teen angst — kept afloat only by the grace of a cynical history teacher (Woody Harrelson) and an adorably awkward romantic suitor named Erwin (Hayden Szeto).
There’s an undeniably restrained approach to The Edge of Seventeen that’s almost instantly noticeable. It’s not flashy, elegantly edited, or even very colorful. However, there’s a vibrancy that immediately shines through due to the dynamic between the film’s wonderful characters. Kelly Fremon Craig allows scenes to play at a natural, measured pace — allotting time for long monologues to unfold, while holding on brief but vital emotional reactions. The result of this substance over style approach is a supremely self-confident film that delivers consistently hilarious laughs, along with some genuinely affecting drama.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see people draw comparisons between The Edge of Seventeen and Jason Reitman’s Juno. Both films tell emotional coming-of-age stories set firmly in Anytown, USA, and both films center on razor sharp, brash heroines whose outsider status makes them intrinsically more interesting than any jock or prep. However, while Juno leaned headfirst into its quirkiness to the point that it almost felt cartoonish at times (in fact, its opening credits were animated), The Edge of Seventeen is steeped in authenticity. Even through the impeccable dialogue and charming characters, there’s an empathetic quality to Nadine’s school and home life that you’ve definitely experienced in your own at some point. From the way teenagers use technology to communicate, to the awkwardness one feels at an average high school party; The Edge of Seventeen nails a myriad elements of the modern high school experience.
That’s not to say that The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t have its own share of quirks. The dialogue in this movie is brilliantly droll, lightning fast, and it works perfectly because the well-rounded nature of Kelly Fremon Craig’s characters. However, throughout the course of the film, these people remain human characters, and never veer too far into the realm of caricature.
It definitely helps that the film is anchored by an array of wonderfully endearing performances. Woody Harrelson in particular deserves recognition for doing something different with the well-worn “sage like mentor” archetype that constantly pops up in these types of movies. He’s a phenomenal foil for the film’s protagonist, and I would genuinely consider watching an entire movie of them sitting across from one another bantering over the mundane.
At the end of the day, however, The Edge of Seventeen‘s biggest asset is undoubtedly Hailee Steinfeld’s utterly compelling performance as Nadine. Channeling pretty much every emotion on the spectrum, Steinfeld carries the entire film with a charisma that feels almost supernatural at times. Even when she’s acting terrible to those around her (as teenagers wont to do at times) the 19-year-old actress remains relatable and infinitely charming. She’s obviously no stranger to movies, as her silver screen debut dates all the way back to the 2010 remake of True Grit, but it’s still clear that her best days as an actress are ahead of her. If she can deliver more performances of this caliber in the near future, I would even go so far as to call her the next Jennifer Lawrence. Seriously, she’s that magnetic.
That being said, The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t necessarily do a perfect job when it comes to balancing the ecosystem of Nadine’s life. Each of the movie’s plot threads feels insulated from the others, and as such certain characters often find themselves placed on the back burner for extended periods of time. This is obviously not a deal breaker in a grand sense, but seeing a more thorough cross pollination of the people who influence Nadine’s life could’ve added an overall layer of depth to the relationships depicted in the film.
Ultimately, The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel with its coming-of-age story, but it’s also not really trying to. Instead it focuses on imbuing its simple story with an inhuman level of heart, and in that regard it succeeds with flying colors. Without a doubt, this is one of the most delightfully enjoyable and rewatchable movies of the year.