Hailee Steinfeld was a revelation in 2010’s True Grit. She ran through Coen Brothers’ dialogue like an old pro, and I expected great things from her acting career. However, Steinfeld has branched out, turning more to singing than acting, and while she’s done a steady stream of movies since her Oscar-nominated performance, no film has really taken advantage of her talents over the years. Thankfully, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen is a marvelous showcase for Steinfeld that lets her dig into the anguish of teenage life with sardonic wit, righteous anger, and heartfelt emotion. Surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, Steinfeld shines in as a teenager caught in a wasteland of her own design.
High school junior Nadine (Steinfeld) has never been particularly cheerful. She’s in the shadow of her perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), their father died several years ago, and she has a strained relationship with her mother (Kyra Sedgwick). Thankfully, she has the support of her lifelong best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and that’s enough until Krista sleeps with Darian. Feeling betrayed by her best friend, Nadine is cut adrift and tries to find friendship with a nerdy classmate (Hayden Szeto), rapport with her sarcastic history teacher (Woody Harrelson), and affection with handsome, aloof crush Nick (Alexander Calvert).
The Edge of Seventeen, like many coming-of-age films, isn’t a plot-driven story. Instead, it follows Nadine through a series of mishaps, and while most of these mishaps are pretty funny, Craig always plays them with total honesty. Yes, Nadine may be a bit sharper and a bit funnier than your average teenager, but for the most part, her journey feels real. Our friends are our rocks, and yet people change, and watching Nadine become estranged from Krista never comes off as contrived or forced. We’re watching two friends go in different directions, and while Krista seems to have things figured out, Nadine is comically stumbling through her own mistakes.
In the hands of a lesser actress, Nadine’s immaturity could be grating or insufferable, but Steinfeld is totally charming despite Nadine being fairly charmless. She’s a raw nerve lashing out at the world, whip smart and pissed off, and she embodies everything we wanted to say in our lesser teenage moments. She’s perfect in her many imperfections, and that honesty makes us care about Nadine’s journey. It’s not that Nadine gets the best one-liners (although she does) or has the most glorious fuck-ups (although she has those as well). It’s that what she’s going through is relatable to most of us who felt like outsiders growing up. Rather than idealize these formative years, Craig revels in our mistakes, and Steinfeld is an excellent guide.
She’s also surrounded by one of the best casts of the year. If there were justice in Hollywood, The Edge of Seventeen would be a who’s who of future A-list stars. I expected Steinfeld to be terrific, but her fellow young actors all play at her level. Between Edge of Seventeen and Everybody Wants Some!! Jenner is having an outstanding 2016. Richardson always comes off as sympathetic and even though Krista crossed a line in her friendship with Nadine, you never feel any enmity towards the character. And if directors don’t start casting the charismatic, winning Szeto in major roles, it will be their loss. And that’s not to mention stalwarts like Sedgwick and Harrelson whose characters show that while adulthood may not get any easier, it’s not like adolescence is a slow march towards oblivion (even if it can feel that way at times).
The Edge of Seventeen feels like a film that could easily fly under the radar this year, and you shouldn’t let that happen. This is a film you’ll catch on a streaming service years from now and then get angry that you hadn’t seen it sooner. It’s not perfect, and it’s not a game-changer for the coming-of-age genre, but it lives in this genre so damn well that it doesn’t really matter. It has endearing performances played honestly to a turbulent time in most people’s lives. It’s not one of the bigger films of 2016, but it’s definitely one of the better ones.