×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Edge of Seventeen’

In the savviest teen comedy in years, Hailee Steinfeld gives a star performance as a beguiling but troubled high schooler who uses her ferocious cleverness to act out her distress.

With:
Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Ly Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Hayden Szeto, Alexander Calvert.

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.

Film Review: 'The Edge of Seventeen'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, September 16, 2016. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 102 MIN.

Production: An STX Entertainment release of a Gracie Films, Huayi Brothers Pictures production. Produced by James L. Brooks, Julie Ansell, Kelly Fremon Craig, Richard Sakai. Executive producers: Oren Aviv, Pete Corral, Brendan Ferguson, Adam Fogelson, Cathy Schulman, Robert Simonds, Donald Tang, Zhongjun Wang, Zhonglei Wang, Jerry Ye.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig. Camera (color, widescreen): Doug Emmett. Editor: Tracey Wadmore-Smith.

With: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Ly Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Hayden Szeto, Alexander Calvert.

More Film

  • Nicolas Cage

    Film News Roundup: Nicolas Cage's 'Jiu Jitsu' Obtains Cyprus Support

    In today’s film news roundup, Cyprus is backing Nicolas Cage’s “Jiu Jitsu”; “The Nanny” and “Amityville 1974” are moving forward; “Milk” is returning to theaters; and Garrett Hedlund’s “Burden” is getting distribution. CYPRUS REBATE Nicolas Cage’s “Jiu Jitsu” has become the first international film to use Cyprus’ new tax credit-rebate program by filming entirely in [...]

  • Zhao Tao

    Zhao Tao Gets Candid in Kering's Shanghai Women in Motion Showcase Interview

    Zhao Tao is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese art cinema thanks to her longtime collaboration with director Jia Zhangke, whom she married in 2012. From 2000’s “Platform” to last year’s “Ash is Purest White,” her work has plumbed the moral depths of modern China and brought stories of the country’s drastic change [...]

  • Skyline on the Huangpu River with

    Chinese-American Film Festival Seeks Particular Dialog

    With U.S.-China ties at an ever-sinking low, the Chinese-American Film and TV Festival on Tuesday pledged to improve communications between the two countries —  at a Chinese language-only press conference Tuesday that had few foreigners present. Most attendees who took to the stage to give congratulatory speeches that seemed more intent on heaping praise upon [...]

  • Murder Mystery

    Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston 'Murder Mystery' Flick

    “Murder Mystery,” the latest Adam Sandler film to debut on Netflix, broke viewing records on the streaming service, the company revealed Tuesday. The film, which is co-headlined by Jennifer Aniston, was seen by close to 30.9 million households in its first 3 days, according to a tweet sent out Tuesday afternoon. 🚨ADAM SANDLER AND JENNIFER [...]

  • Agents Accuse Writers Guild of Refusing

    Writers Guild 'Plans to Respond' to Agents' Proposal as Frustration Mounts

    In a sign of increasing frustration, Hollywood agents have accused the Writers Guild of America of foot-dragging in the bitter two-month dispute. “It has become clear as more days pass that the Guild is not interested in making a deal,” said the negotiating committee for the agents in statement issued Tuesday. “Over the past year, [...]

  • Jermaine Fowler arrives at the 69th

    Jermaine Fowler to Co-Star With Eddie Murphy in 'Coming 2 America' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jermaine Fowler is set to play one of the leads opposite Eddie Murphy in Paramount’s sequel “Coming 2 America,” sources tell Variety. “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer is on board to direct the pic with the studio planning an August 7, 2020 release. Plot details of “Coming 2 America” are unknown, as are the [...]

  • Henry Golding attends the Fragrance Foundation

    Henry Golding Starts Long House Shingle With 'Inheritance,' 'Harrington's Greatest Hits'

    “Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding has started Long House Productions in partnership with China’s Starlight Cultural Entertainment Group with two features in the works. Golding’s first feature under the Long House banner is action adventure “The Inheritance,” based on an original story idea by Alistair Hudson and Golding. Hudson is writing the script for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content