Overview: Four years after the loss of her father (and biggest champion), awkward and acerbic Nadine must learn to navigate the perils of 11th grade without lifelong best friend Krista, exiled by Nadine after hooking up with her popular older brother (and sometimes enemy), Darian. Sony Pictures Entertainment; 2016; Rated R; 104 minutes.
Familiar Ground: It’s easy to immediately identify with The Edge of Seventeen since the viewer has likely been here before, whether in real life or at the movies. Awkwardness, it would seem, is a teenage universal. The story begins with a voiceover from Nadine (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld) recounting to a reluctant confidante, her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), the ways life has been difficult.
We see a flashback painfully detailing the ways she’s been bullied from early childhood on, but we also see that she had (at least until early adolescence) two saviors on whom she could always rely, her father, and her best friend, Krista. We know from early in the film that Nadine lost her beloved dad too soon, but neither the viewer nor Nadine, will understand the full scope of that loss for some time. In fact, it isn’t until the saintly Krista begins to date Nadine’s popular older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner, of Everybody Wants Some!!), that Nadine must begin to address some of that pain, while learning to pilot the perilous waters of high school alone.
Fresh Take: The Edge of Seventeen will inevitably draw comparisons to Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 ode to outsider girlhood, but its overall outlook is a bit gentler. Whether this is intentional on the part of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, or borne of big studio test audiences, it’s impossible to know, but the story doesn’t suffer for it. Instead, we’re treated to a look at a young woman coping with the typical teen movie foils, but also a nuanced look at the family that surrounds her, including Nadine’s anxious, impulsive mom, Mona (Kyra Segwick), still dealing with the death of her husband, while raising two teenagers alone.
Much of The Edge of Seventeen seems to exist in a parallel universe to many teen movies: an “upside-down” where the teens act like adults (popular Darian’s abstaining from alcohol; hyper-responsible Erwin living alone in a mansion while his parents are in Korea) and the adults act disconcertingly like teens (Mr. Bruner’s cursing, Mona’s spontaneous weekend getaway with a married suitor).
It’s an angle not often explored and the change is refreshing. It doesn’t mean that the adults are irredeemable or that the teens are perfect (though Hayden Szeto’s turn as Nadine’s romantic lead, Erwin, comes sometimes disconcertingly close). Instead, it’s a movie that pays tribute to the complexities of teens and adults.
Throughout much of the first half of The Edge of Seventeen, Nadine is precocious, thoughtful and funny to the point of biting. Her self-awareness veers often into self-involvement and the viewer’s frustration builds. It’s only in the second half that the characters begin to pick at some of those primal scabs and healing can begin.
Where It Falters: Much like spending extended periods of time around real teenagers, there are moments throughout The Edge of Seventeen where all this self-aware awkwardness wears a bit thin. In particular, Steinfeld’s performance during moments where her character feels (or feigns) self-consciousness sometimes mirror Jennifer Anniston’s comedic delivery to the extent that Steinfeld’s acting sometimes reads as an impression. But even this feels true to life in a way; find me a teenager who didn’t experiment with different affectations and I’ll give you a Friends VHS box set that must be around here somewhere.
A few characters do get short shrift. In Jenner’s case, his Darian seems at first to be a pastiche of ’80s teen movie villains, until an emotional confrontation between him and his sister tenderly reframes him. But that big reveal never comes for Krista, who we never know much beyond the fact that she just seems essentially so damn nice, even despite committing what at first looks an awful lot like betrayal. That said, Haley Lu Richardson’s Krista is a centering, calming, and luminous presence onscreen, injecting her small role with true best friend believability.
Where It Shines: The Edge of Seventeen draws great performances out of its entire cast, including Richardson, but Hayden Szeto deserves more time in the spotlight. Not only is Szeto (who, at 31, is pulling a Gabrielle Carteris turn playing a teen) the high school suitor we all wish we could have had, his Erwin is the perfect counterbalance to Nadine’s sometimes frazzled confusion. Also, anyone who suffered through the racist stereotypes of Asian males in ’80s teen movies will feel a sense of satisfaction that Erwin’s race is only a touchpoint, not a defining characteristic of the deep friendship between him and Nadine, or of his character.
And if you’re in the mood to feel nostalgic for the teen movies of the ’80s or ’90s, The Edge of Seventeen offers up plenty of winking allusions, from Nadine’s colorblock ski jacket and ever-present Chuck Taylors, to Krista’s velvet choker. Each of these visuals feels both like a nod to what came before, as well as a knowing acknowledgement of the universality of the teen experience. Wherever you go, there you are (looking for your seat in the cafeteria).
Overall: The Edge of Seventeen is a humorous and humane look at the way family and friendship dynamics shape our identity and worldview, whether we’re awkward teenagers or just awkward teenagers-at-heart.
Featured Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment