The teen film is a huge genre that breaks down into subgenres. There’s the epic party genre, the homely girl takes off her glasses and gets the cute guy genre, or the observe, the nerdy guy gets the cute girl genre. The best teen films are those who avoid cliches and tell it like it is–that high school is a kind of hell.
The Edge of Seventeen, which does indulge a bit in the nerdy guy genre, is one of the better ten films of recent years, and reminded me a lot of Ghost World, in that both films are about a girl who just can’t connect with her cohort, and when it seems like a long-time friend betrays her, she just about melts down.
Hailee Steinfeld is absolutely terrific as Nadine, who is 17 and has always felt inferior to her older brother (Blake Jenner), an Adonis who does everything right. Her mother, Kyra Sedgwick, is at wit’s end, dealing with her husband’s death and Steinfeld’s difficult behavior. There’s really only two people Steinfeld can talk to her–her constantly bemused history teacher (Woody Harrelson) and her BFF since second grade, Haley Lu Richardson.
Then, horror of horrors, Richardson hooks up with Jenner, and Steinfeld can’t take it. Some sisters might thrill to their friend dating their brother, but to Steinfeld her brother is everything she hates, and she gives Richardson an ultimatum. Needless to say, it does not go well.
The Edge of Seventeen was written and directed, in her directorial debut, by Kelly Fremon Craig, who seems to remember what a minefield school was. Steinfeld’s character, like Enid in Ghost World, is a precocious girl who has a terrific vocabulary but lousy social skills. She is narcissistic to the point of having trouble seeing the point of view of anyone else. But we root for her, maybe because of her intelligence (unlike a movie like Juno, though, Nadine is not given encyclopedic knowledge of punk bands or any other esoterica) or maybe just because most people can empathize with her being torn between family and a misguided self-righteousness.
There are a few cliches, such as Steinfeld being torn between the bad boy (Alexander Calvert), whom she mistakenly sends a pornographic instant message, and the nerdy good guy (Hayden Szeto). Who she will choose is pretty much a dead giveaway, and in a long-held fantasy of nerds, the guy who gets her does it with his art work.
But despite certain familiar tropes, The Edge of Seventeen is elevated by smart dialogue and a scintillating lead performance. This is Steinfeld’s first real chance to shine since her debut in True Grit, and it is heartening to know that was not a one and done.