The Edge of Seventeen Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson. Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
When 17-year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) first shows up in The Edge of Seventeen, she’s telling her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) that she’s planning to kill herself. It’s an attention-grabbing opening for a movie that’s funnier and more heartwarming than its first line suggests. Nadine isn’t really serious about killing herself, but like a lot of teenagers, she blows every perceived bit of mistreatment and injustice way out of proportion (although she has dealt with some real tragedy in her life). First-time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig has a deep understanding of teenage emotions, but she also never lets Nadine off the hook, keeping her sympathetic and likable even when she’s clearly in the wrong.
Craig owes a lot to the works of John Hughes and movies like Ghost World and Mean Girls, but she still puts a very personal spin on the genre, and Steinfeld gives a fantastic performance that matches up to her breakout turn in True Grit. Nadine’s problems aren’t all that unique: She’s still reeling from the sudden death of her father a few years back, she’s socially awkward and often lonely and she’s living in the shadow of her popular jock older brother (Blake Jenner), who has started dating her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson).
It’s that last development that really sends Nadine into a tailspin, and Craig depicts Nadine’s dramatic freak-outs with sensitivity and wit, grounding even the goofiest plot developments in real emotion. Mr. Bruner provides a funny, acerbic counterpoint to Nadine’s outsize emotions, and, like all the supporting characters, the seemingly jaded teacher eventually shows unexpected personal nuances. That’s the movie’s greatest strength: It makes familiar teen-movie clichés fresh again, treating every character with deserved respect and honesty. The humor and the heartbreak are equally affecting and real, making for the most satisfying American teen movie in years.