The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016) 4 out of 4 stars
A delightfully offbeat coming-of-age tale, The Edge of Seventeen gives us Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as Nadine, a surly teenage girl whose first words of the movie are a declaration of suicidal intent. To whom does she make this horrific confession? Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), one of her teachers (as it turns out, her favorite), who looks at her from behind his desk, slouched in midday fatigue, his weary eyes unmoved. His response is to crack a joke at her expense and complain that Nadine never lets him eat his lunch in peace. Either he (and, by extension, the movie) is extremely insensitive, or he has her number, knowing just what kind of pushback is appropriate to kick Nadine out of the melancholy of adolescent despair. Something in the crinkle of his brow gives away the game: they’ve been here before, these two. It may all work itself out.
As it turns out, that opening interaction sets the tone of the film, which sees Nadine careen from crisis to worsening crisis, alienating those who would love her if she would only give them the chance. She lives at home with mom (Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer) and big brother Darian (Blake Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!!), and more or less hates them both. It’s a good thing she has best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson, The Young Kieslowski) to break up the depressive repetition of high-school mundanities. The film presents the history of her bleak (as she sees it) life in a snappy montage of misadventures that works in tonal opposition to Nadine’s gloomy voiceover. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig – whose first feature this is – proves herself extremely adept at balancing respect for the very real challenges of the teenage years with a bubbly recognition that we’ve all been here before and that, surely, somehow, it will all end well.
Which it does, but in ways both familiar and unexpected. The joy of this movie is how Craig breathes new life into a cinematically commonplace narrative. Seinfeld is a large part of the reason, delivering a charming and winning performance that makes Nadine infinitely appealing even when she is cruel. Harrelson is equally perfect as the cynical teacher, who may not, in fact, be as jaded as we initially think. Sedgwick, Jenner and Richardson are also very watchable, but it is perhaps Hayden Szeto (The Unbidden), both endearing and very funny as Erwin, the lovesick student ignored by Nadine, who steals the show. Overall, then, The Edge of Seventeen is a near-perfect teen comedy that announces a bold new directorial talent and is a wonderful antidote to the poison in our collective system after the rancorous election season. A must-see for all.