In the best teen films, from “Sixteen Candles” to “Clueless” to “Superbad” to the greatest high school movie of the last ten years, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the main characters have a way of occupying the moral high ground. Even when they’re outcasts or “losers,” their cleverness and wit — the sheer humanity of their alienation — puts us right on their side. But that’s not quite the case with Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), the radiantly troubled heroine of “The Edge of Seventeen.”
She’s a creature of intense magnetism who, in theory at least, has all the qualities that an audience could want. She’s poised and beautiful, with a wardrobe — colorful wedgy sneakers, parochial-school skirt worn as ironic fashion statement — catchy enough to be just this side of fatally hip. She speaks in drop-dead verbal volleys, which she stretches out into entertainingly long and winding sentences, and she surveys the world with an awareness that links her to several generations of precocious movie rebels. When she interrupts one of her teachers, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), during his lunch hour, all so she can deliver a big speech about how she wants to commit suicide, it’s clear that she’s drama-queening whatever’s going on with her. We sit back and chuckle at her over-the-top audacity. It all seems a bit broad, and maybe a bit too familiar.
But Nadine, it turns out, isn’t just an outrageous charmer. She’s a pill, a narcissist who speaks in forked tongue — a girl who uses her God-given brains and humor by turning them against everyone around her. “The Edge of Seventeen” was written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (it’s her first feature), with James L. Brooks serving as its lead producer, and it’s a teen movie that starts off funny ha-ha but turns into something more like a light-fingered psychological thriller. The drama is all in Nadine’s personality, in how far she’ll go to act out her distress.
She’s got a major problem with her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), a golden-boy jock who’s the most popular dude in his senior class. She can’t stand the fact that he outshines her, so she turns him into her enemy. “Your head is too big for your body,” she snaps. “It looks ridiculous, and you’ll never be able to fix it.” Handsome as he is, we look at him and think, “She’s kind of right.” Therein lies Nadine’s power: She’s so smart that she zeroes in on people’s weak spots, and spouts them, and trumps them. But the one this all leaves in the dust is her.
It takes a certain high-wire daring to make a teen comedy in which the heroine acts like a holy terror, and “The Edge of Seventeen” all but invites you to gaze at Nadine and think of her as, you know, the B-word. Except for one important qualifier: Deep down, she’s not really out to wound people — she’s trying, almost compulsively, to push them away. Ever since her big-screen debut in 2010, playing Mattie Ross in “True Grit,” Hailee Steinfeld has gathered confidence as a performer, and “The Edge of Seventeen” is her breakthrough. She’s a fantastic actress, with a sharpness and verve that belies the catlike softness of her features. She’s like the young Elizabeth Taylor, with playful flexing eyebrows that italicize her every thought. Even when she’s just tossing off lines, Steinfeld makes Nadine a hellion you can’t tear yourself away from. She isn’t just the star of “The Edge of Seventeen” — she’s its center of gravity.
Why does a girl who looks like such a sweet person behave like she wants to burn the room down? The film explains it all, and it also (mercifully) doesn’t. A flashback reveals that Nadine was always difficult: a seven-year-old who refused to get out of the car to go to school. She was already at war with her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), while her pockmarked Billy Joel-loving nerd of a daddy (Eric Keenleyside) doted on her and made her feel protected — until she was 13, when he died (while driving in the car with her) of a heart attack.
You could say that that tragedy unhinges her family, and that she’s never recovered. Yet the quirky, slow-gathering force of “The Edge of Seventeen” is that it’s not a cause-and-effect melodrama. The fact that Nadine lost her father is part of her unhappiness now, but her crisis is more like a perfect storm of fate, temperament, jealousy, and the era we’re living in. In the midst of a sleepover, her longtime best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), falls into bed with her brother — a far-from-outlandish situation, but one that Nadine can’t deal with. Something in her snaps. She tells Krista that it’s either Darian or her — a totally fascist thing to say — and when the sincere Krista (rightly) chooses love over a friendship that’s starting to look like not so much of a friendship, Nadine is cut loose, on her own. She now has nothing to rely on but the echo chamber of her own personality.
At lunch, she visits Mr. Bruner, played by Harrelson as a seen-it-all saintly cynic who can match Nadine rejoinder for ironic rejoinder. She does a hilarious deconstruction of his baldness (and his salary), and she has a telling moment with him, confessing that she loathes her fellow students because she’s an “old soul,” a girl out of time. But it’s a sign of what a strong filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig is that the old-soul line is subtly undercut by the reality we’re shown. Nadine, with her snark and mockery, her way of treating life as a taking-off point for vicious teasing, is anything but an old soul. She’s a pure product of the digital age, though she has a depth that the heroines of films like “Easy A” or “The To Do List” did not.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is often a kick, especially when Nadine gets together with her classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a slyly chivalrous Korean-American animator she reduces, at moments, to a quizzical stutter; the two of them match right up. She also throws herself at Nick (Alexander Calvert), a dreamboat she promises, in a spontaneous text message from hell, to sleep with — though by the time they get together, she has figured how to flip even the object of her affection into a figure of resentment. It’s at this point we realize she’s just going to keep sinking lower and lower, until she hits bottom. Yet the way “The Edge of Seventeen” works, Nadine’s descent isn’t a downer. It’s darkly hilarious and even necessary. She just has to break through to the other side of it.