Teenagers, you might have heard, can be a bit of a handful. Feed them into the Hollywood-movie machine, though, and their problems usually get solved—broken friendships are healed, potential romances are consummated, important life lessons are learned. But the director Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut film The Edge of Seventeen feints away from every adolescent cliché to create something far more wholly realized. The result is a story of young adulthood that isn’t afraid to be abrasive and emotionally confusing, while also making space for rare instances of vulnerability and tenderness.
The Edge of Seventeen is a sharp portrait of a 17-year-old roiled by hormones and emotions. Craig is candid about what a nightmare her protagonist Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) can be. Nadine is prone to moments of cruelty or gracelessness, and proves at times to be incapable of self-awareness, despite her obvious intelligence. She’s frustrating, but she also feels like an authentic person, which makes it easy to be invested in her many misadventures throughout the school year. As an R-rated, small-budget dramedy, the movie might get buried in cinemas by a slew of Thanksgiving blockbusters, but it seems destined for a long shelf life as a young-adult classic.
Craig’s first stroke of genius is in not defining Nadine as any particular type of outcast. She’s just a little too acerbic to fit in, but she’s also clearly uninterested in modulating her personality to blend into the background. Nadine has a bit of a dark edge, partly because her father (Eric Keenleyside) died a few years earlier, but, she notes, that trauma seemingly drove her jock brother Darian (Blake Jenner) to become even more popular. Nadine’s best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), a more “normal” classmate, helps keep her afloat, but that uneasy peace implodes when Krista and Darian begin dating at the start of the film.
From there on, The Edge of Seventeen is a delightful mix of foul-mouthed and grumpy comedy, small-scale self-destructiveness, and tentative romance. Nadine cuts off her relationship with Krista, and the psychic scars begin to show, as she forges a new friendship with Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a rich Asian boy at her school who has his own credible disaffections. The film doesn’t have any wild dramatic twists or moments of terrible danger. Instead, it tries to put the viewer firmly into Nadine’s discombobulated headspace and have them sympathize every time she lashes out—not because she’s in the right, but because most people felt the same at some point in their youth.
Steinfeld helps Craig’s wonderful script along by giving a superb lead performance, one that finally delivers on the tremendous promise she showed in her Oscar-nominated turn in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010). Where that movie’s vengeful Mattie Ross was stoic and single-minded, Nadine is passionate and misdirected. Steinfeld manages to powerfully convey Nadine’s emotions, even if the character herself isn’t always in touch with how she feels. Since the film is relatively light on plot, Steinfeld has to bear the burden of keeping The Edge of Seventeen compelling. She does so perfectly.
The supporting cast certainly helps—Jenner (who played a more charming doofus in Everybody Wants Some!! this year) is perfectly inscrutable as Nadine’s older brother, who’s frustrated with his sister’s mood swings. Woody Harrelson, handed the supreme cliché role of cliché roles (as the wise teacher Mr. Bruner), is a hilariously mean foil for Nadine as an educator whose compassion has been chipped away at by years of experience in the public-school system. As the straight-arrow Erwin, who’s clearly interested in Nadine but has no idea how to snap her out of her various reveries, Szeto is a delight, as well as a refreshing choice for a romantic lead in a genre that usually relegates Asian performers to sidekick roles.
But The Edge of Seventeen begins and ends with Nadine, the kind of character you might wish you could pull off the screen just to shake some sense into her. Craig builds out her emotional arc slowly but surely, contextualizing Nadine’s depression and her cynicism through flashbacks in a way that never feels patronizing. She’s unpredictable—and can be rude and insightful within the same sentence. But more than anything, she’s someone to root for, because she’s portrayed as a complex person, not as a representative for a whole demographic. This is a movie about a teen, first and foremost, rather than a “teen movie,” and that’s exactly what makes it feel like a peerless example for the genre.