I can’t help but have a cautious approach to any movie described as “a high school coming-of-age story”. Just think of the stale, uninspired sludge Hollywood has churned out that fits that billing. “The Edge of Seventeen” from first time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig is a welcomed antithesis to the conventional norm. It’s a clear-eyed movie that looks at teen anxiety without an ounce of glamour and with a refreshing bite to it.
The film stars Hailee Steinfeld, a young talent I’ve admired since her Oscar-nominated debut in the Coen brothers western remake “True Grit”. The story opens with her character, a frantic 17 year-old Nadine, bursting into her history teacher Mr. Bruner’s classroom and proclaiming she is going to kill herself. It’s a startling statement met with an even more startling response from her teacher (played by a snarky deadpan Woody Harrelson).
The film takes a few steps back to show what brought Nadine to this point. You have her contentious relationship with her disconnected mother (Kyra Sedgwick). Then you have her animosity towards her brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a super popular jock at school and a mama’s boy at home. But at least she has her one true friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), a fellow outsider and her emotional outlet. But even that sacred relationship runs into its own bit of trouble.
At first glance Nadine’s situation seems obvious – she’s surrounded by uncaring people who are consumed with their own perfect lives. But Craig’s screenplay isn’t that transparent. Through a handful of clever and subtle changes of perspective we begin to see some things differently. Nadine’s self-loathing comes more into focus and its effects on her relationships becomes more profound.
Through all of this Craig shows off a biting sense of humor. Some of the very best scenes are the empty classroom sessions between Steinfeld and Harrelson. They are often uncomfortably funny and I say that as a compliment. Mr. Bruner comes across as dismissive and insulting, at one point calling her the worst dressed student in the school and sometimes worse. Nadine keeps engaging him because he legitimizes her low opinions of herself. Their darkly funny back-and-forths highlight a keen acidic wit that fits wonderfully with their chemistry.
There are a couple of other performances I need to mention. Blake Jenner (who also starred in 2016’s “Everybody Wants Some”) is very good playing different shades of the Darian character. And I really liked Hayden Szeto who plays Nadine’s equally awkward love-struck classmate Erwin. This is Szeto’s film debut and he has a fairly small part, but he is such a fresh and funny presence.
There are a handful of moments where it’s too easy for us to get ahead of the story. These few predictable scenes are some of the biggest turning points in the story. But they are small blemishes on an otherwise refreshing take on teen life. “The Edge of Seventeen” isn’t some cliched nostalgic trip down memory lane. Instead it reminds us that for some kids high school wasn’t parties and pageantry. It’s also a great showcase for Hailee Steinfeld and a wonderful introduction to Kelly Fremon Craig, an exciting young cinematic voice.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS