The closest antecedents to Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), the narcissistic heart of The Edge of Seventeen, are the more acerbic heroines of the high school film canon, like Ellen Page’s Juno MacGuff from Juno and Thora Birch’s Enid from Ghost World. Nadine’s vintage-tinged style is Rookie-certified and her wit is a little too lacerating. She isn’t as ostentatiously “weird” as her forebears, but Nadine is content to feel hopelessly out of step with the petty modern world instead of trying to figure out where she fits into it. The smartest thing about Kelly Fremon Craig’s teen dramedy is its measured take on Nadine’s theatrics. When the girl confides to her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), that she’s the quintessential “old soul,” all he can do is laugh.
In the film’s first scene, Nadine approaches Mr. Bruner in the throes of teenage angst, threatening suicide and lobbing verbal grenades after she catches her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), in bed with her brother, Darien (Blake Jenner). Nadine’s histrionics suggest this is just the latest in a series of earthshaking adolescent tragedies, but Craig turns the screws on the viewer, revealing (via flashback) the death of the teen’s father, Tom (Eric Keenleyside), three years earlier. From here on, Nadine’s more petty frustrations are shaded with bottled-up grief.
Nadine lives in a tidy home with a self-involved mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), and all-American boy Darien, whose “winner” mentality and mama’s-boy politeness Nadine perceives as both a denial of life’s awfulness and an act of hostility toward her own insecurity and self-loathing. Suddenly friendless, Nadine awkwardly invites the company of male classmates, fielding adorably stuttering advances from classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto) while pining for Nick (Alexander Calvert), a brooding loser fresh out of juvie.
None of The Edge of Seventeen’s subplots are particularly original, but they’re deftly structured as a constellation of feuds, concerns, and anxieties Nadine must grapple with simultaneously. In her adolescent fervor, the teen says nasty things and makes a few predictably foolish decisions, but the film maintains an innate sympathy for her, and it’s full of shrewd reminders that Nadine’s sense of alienation is self-fulfilling. Craig uses the film’s homogeneous, upper-middle-class backdrop as a reminder of the girl’s innate security; even when they’re enraged by Nadine’s behavior, the supporting characters serve a similar function. (One scene shows Mona crafting a text message to her daughter, wavering between fury and maternal concern.)
The film doesn’t coddle Nadine, but it never hides its desire to nurture her. After Nadine storms away from scene after scene in a fit of frustration, Craig always cuts back to the victim of her impetuous scorn, registering looks that are wounded but distinctly empathetic. The film’s fixation on the messiness of human communication pays a fine tribute to the canon of its producer, James L. Brooks. “I want to make you feel better,” Mona says helplessly at one point. “What can I say to do that?” Though Nadine flirts with Hannah Horvath-like levels of self-sabotage, Steinfeld does an excellent job maintaining her character’s innate appeal and dignity. At a party with her boyfriend and her ex-bestie, Nadine retreats to the bathroom and looks in the mirror and gives herself a motivational speech: “Don’t be so weird. Go talk to people.”
Nadine projects an intelligence and a charisma that her emotions can’t yet catch up with, and this dilemma—our capacity to reckon thoughts and feelings or, more simply, to become mature—propels every strand of the film. Craig’s script is notably free of references to cliques and stereotypical authority figures, and nods toward social media and teen sex and alcohol use are exceedingly casual. (Even the soundtrack, ranging from Beck and Aimee Mann to Caribou and Anderson .Paak, feels plausibly diverse without being erratic.) Everyone here is a work in progress; the film’s resolution is merely an acknowledgement of this fact. Though it goes through some familiar motions, The Edge of Seventeen’s devotion to the interior lives of its characters affords this high school comedy an unusual authenticity.