Outside of her high school on a sunny day, Nadine spots her brother Darian walking nearby with some classmates. “Look at that stupid shirt my brother's wearing,” Nadine tells her best friend Krista. “It screams: I have a body complex worse than a girl's.” She pauses for a fraction of a second, then notes with outrage, “You can see his nipples!”
Nadine is upset over her brother's perfectly ordinary shirt because she is perpetually annoyed at her brother. He was the golden child when they were kids and now he's a polite, popular, good looking athlete. How obnoxious is that?
While Darian breezes through life, Nadine suffers. Loudly. We hear about life from her perspective – her funny, caustic, often annoying perspective. In fact, Nadine's teenage trauma-filled life is as ordinary as her brother's shirt, but she would flip out if you told her so.
Like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Juno and so many others, The Edge of Seventeen finds the entertainment value in teenage angst. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig (this is her first turn as director) keeps the focus tightly on Nadine and just a few others. Hailee Steinfeld heads the spot-on cast. Remember the little girl who was so terrific in the Coen Brothers' True Grit? That's Hailee. She's nearly full-grown now and remains a commanding presence.
Many of the film's best exchanges come between Nadine and her history teacher/reluctant mentor Mr. Bruner. Woody Harrelson plays the low-key educator with considerable skill. Mr. Bruner cares but goes to great lengths to avoid revealing that fact. His default presentation style is sarcasm drizzled with withering dismissals. When Nadine presents a suicide note to him (“I thought an adult should know”) he critiques her sentence structure. Like Steinfeld's Nadine, Harrelson's Mr. Bruner resides perilously close to Obnoxious City, USA, but the veteran actor modulates his near-monotone just enough to keep him on the sympathetic side.
Nadine's best friend is Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who avoids second banana blandness by displaying a strong backbone and a sense of decency that holds up well when under attack. Perfect brother Darian is played by Blake Jenner (“Everybody Wants Some!”), who is also good at playing positive without getting annoying. Nadine would disagree. She is shocked beyond belief when Krisa and Darian become a couple. How dare they!
With her best friend banished from her life – she's probably off somewhere touching her brother's nipples! – Nadine realizes she has no allies. She can't talk to Mom (Kyra Sedgwick, in a well-layered performance); things haven't been right with her since Nadine's dad died of a heart attack. She can only babble to Mr. Bruner so long before he shoos her away.
But wait … a classmate named Erwin (Hayden Szeto, quite likeable) wants to spend time with her. He's clearly got a crush on Nadine, but she doesn't notice. Her attentions have turned to Nick (Alexander Calvert), this really sexy guy who works at Petland. Complications ensue, causing Nadine's life to become even more dramatic. How much pain can one person take?
The trick for writers of coming-of-age stories is trying to sound authentic. Juno failed. I loved that film and its charismatic lead character, but she never sounded like a real kid, she always sounded like a very clever screenwriter in the body of a teen.
The Edge of Seventeen feels closer to genuine. There are pauses, welcome pauses, because sometimes real people don't have a killer quote on the tip of their lips every single moment of the day. Writer-director Fremon Craig maintains a certain sense of reserve with most of the characters, which allows Nadine more room to use the world as a stage while seeming genuine. Mostly. Of course, there's only so much reality a person can take, and it's fun watching larger-than-life characters chew up the landscape more colorfully than most of us could manage.
The Edge of Seventeen is sexually frank. It's funny, involving and touching in nice doses. Plus it stars Hailee Steinfeld and features our longtime pal Woody Harrelson. Kelly Fremon Craig has made a dandy directorial debut.