Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig presents a convincing argument that teenage life hasn't changed much in the last thirty years, in this appealing John Hughes-ish dramedy about an angst-ridden high school junior (Hailee Steinfeld) navigating the ups and downs of her suburban Oregon existence.
The Edge of Seventeen has just a wisp of plot: acid-tongued Nadine (Steinfeld) finds her world turned upside down when her best – and only – friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating Nadine's brother (Blake Jenner), a born winner whose apparent ease with life has long been a source of resentment for his cantankerous sister. Adults know that such crises are mere potholes on the long road of life, but for a 17-year-old they can be apocalyptic. We've all been Nadine at some point in our lives: The Edge of Seventeen wins big points for relatability.
I did have some problems with the film. Primarily, it expects us to believe that a girl as obviously pretty as Hailee Steinfeld would be friendless and unloved at her school. Steinfeld, to her credit, makes Nadine such a cauldron of toxicity – she has a knack for deploying the most stinging personal insult when attacked – that we can understand why her classmates evade her (even while the actress miraculously keeps her sympathetic; compare Nadine to the intolerable brat played by Anna Paquin in the overrated Margaret). Still, the film would have been better if Craig had Nadine's classmates at least acknowledge her physical attractiveness, and the complicated feelings that engenders. The Beautiful Angry Loner Girl may only be a dramatic construct, but if such a person really existed, she'd be an interesting character to examine. Craig, instead, would have us believe that Steinfeld is an average-looking teen.
Another Hollywood burnish to the film's veneer is actor Hayden Szeto as Nadine's would-be love interest. I applaud Craig's decision to cast an Asian American as a romantic male lead, but did his character have to have washboard abs and live in a multi-million-dollar mansion? Couldn't he have just been a smart, kind, slightly awkward teenager, able to win Nadine's heart on those merits alone? It doesn't help that Szeto looks every bit the 31-year-old that he is. (Steinfeld, at 19, has no problem passing for younger.)
I did like The Edge of Seventeen. It's no classic, but it's funny and honest and Steinfeld is great. And I certainly can't close without noting Woody Harrelson as Nadine's cynical history teacher/sounding board. Every line that Craig has written for him is hilarious, and his deadpan delivery is perfect. He alone is worth the price of admission.