Every teen movie strives to capture that delicate tragicomedy blend of angst and energy that made adolescence such a dizzying ride. Still, the genre overflows with failed films that feel pandering, hokey or painfully out of touch. Thankfully, in the tradition of teen classics like Clueless, Mean Girls, and Juno comes The Edge of Seventeen, a brilliant coming-of-age comedy with anger issues.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen centers on misfit Nadine (Pitch Perfect 2’s Hailee Steinfeld), a fireball of anxiety, self-doubt, and snark. While her studly and smart older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) seems to have the world on a string, this socially awkward and perpetually volatile junior struggles to catch the eye of her bad boy crush, and feels crushed by the perpetual nitpicking of her mother (Kyra Sedgwick). Nadine’s only emotional support is her childhood friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) and her acerbic history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson being a bastardly delight). So when her bestie and brother start dating each other, Nadine’s fragile self-worth is shattered, sending her on a hilarious and occasionally heart-wrenching emotional rollercoaster.
Since she broke out with True Grit, Steinfeld’s been mired in underwritten moody teen roles (Begin Again, Barely Lethal, Term Life). But Craig’s script finally gives this dynamic and daring ingénue (who memorably made an anthem about masturbation) something she can truly sink her teeth into. Her sharp comedic timing and animated mugging makes Steinfeld a perfect scene partner to smirking Harrelson and his withering wit. In one particularly mortifying/hysterical scene, this reluctant mentor reads aloud a regrettable and ranting sext Nadine sent to a peer (“I want you to put your mouth on my…tits…”) As Nadine wriggles in abject embarrassment begging for Mr. Bruner’s help, he coolly advises, “You need to watch out for run-on sentences.”
The supporting cast delivers. Richardson has a breezy warmth that instantly sells Krista and Nadine’s friendship, swiftly grounding the stakes of its loss. Almost impossibly brawny, Jenner looks the part of the golden boy, and brings earnest angst when called upon. Sedgwick sears as a sneering mom, and Hayden Szeto is adorably and authentically gawky as the soulful nerd Nadine overlooks. Still, Steinfeld and Harrelson’s chemistry offers the film’s most outrageously funny scenes.
Though much of its runtime relishes is the humor of humiliating social situations, Steinfeld likewise lands its darker moments. Her on-edge smile and fiery glare fall away to reveal a girl on the verge of falling apart. Nadine is a turmoil tornado, spinning in self-focused fury yet sucking those around her into her drama. Just as Alicia Silverstone’s charisma helped audiences forgive Cher’s cluelessness, Steinfeld’s natural charm helps smooth the edges of this deeply angry heroine, who shoots off childish insults as readily as she rolls her big brown eyes in stark infuriation. Not even Diablo Cody let Juno get as flawed, raw and furious as Craig’s heroine, who has no hyper-witty one-liners to soften her emotionally reckless moments. Allowing a teen girl to be this angry in a commercial comedy is transgressive, refreshing, and fills an previously unacknowledged absence in the class of teen comedies.
For all its angst, The Edge of Seventeen feels bright and celebratory, ultimately urging Nadine to an empathy that ironically makes her feel less alone in her pain. While the final act feels haphazard and overly sunny, this barbed and bouncy comedy is electrifying, bold, and wickedly entertaining.
Rating: 4 burritos, messy and magical.
Images: STX Entertainment