It’s hard being a teen. Brining in hormones transforming a person from child to adult heightens emotional stakes. Every decision seems to weigh heavily on the future, relationships feel like they have life and death consequences, urges can lead to reckless decisions. Caterpillars are lucky no one can see them inside the cocoon. For us unlucky humans, we grow into new bodies, new thoughts, and new behaviors with gangly guesswork. Part of Nadine’s problem in The Edge of Seventeen is thinking she’s the only one hit hard by teenage changes. She compares herself to her handsome older brother – popular, sporty, fit, charming – and comes up short. She’s awkward, disheveled, with bouts of acne. And she has only one friend, the same one since second grade when they bonded over – metaphor alert! – a caterpillar they plan to raise together only to suffocate a few hours later. All these years later, and Nadine is sure she’ll be like that caterpillar: snuffed out in one way or another before she can flower into the confident young adult she doubts she’ll ever be.
Hailee Steinfeld stars, and it’s her best role since her debut in the Coen’s True Grit. She has a perfect face to play this exasperated young woman coming apart at the seams. She has a sympathetic openness cutting easily into sharp edges of pain and meanness. She’s able to send her dark eyes flitting between beleaguered and bitter, humble and harried, open fumbling flirtations, deep pain, and howling rage. She always struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness, but now, in the years following her father’s death, she’s been lost in a fog of depression as well. Snark is her primary coping mechanism, throwing up a layer of derision, eye rolling, and mean quips to protect herself from further emotional damage. She affects an attitude of carelessness, because it’d hurt more if people knew she cared. But then her only friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her brother (Blake Jenner), and she finds herself adrift, no one to turn to. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is too busy, and too lost in her own problems, to connect. Even her favorite teacher (Woody Harrelson) has only deeply sarcastic rebuttals to her flawed attempts to ask for advice.
As writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig unfolds the warm and prickly comic teen drama around Nadine, she captures an authentic adolescent attitude of perpetual crisis. We’re joining the lead’s life at a moment of snowballing emotional pain, which has its roots in sadness of the past, but escalates now at the brink of adulthood. She’s all-too-aware of her struggles, and in fear that no one cares. She thinks she’s the only person with problems this bad, even though her mom’s weak advice is to remember that everyone’s as empty as she is. (“They’re all just better at pretending.”) A low-key, dead-on portrayal of high school depression and angst, the movie proceeds in funny bantering exchanges between characters as Nadine huffs and sulks through her latest dramas. She’s witty, perceptive, intelligent, but the sort that leads a teen to pull back from peers, explaining away her self-imposed exile through self-loathing masking a feeling of superiority. (In one deeply sad moment, she confesses, “I just realized I have to spend the rest of my life with me.”) This feels far more real and raw than the usual teen movie constructions, and lets the comedy fall easily into cutting spikes of sadness.
There’s a feeling of honesty permeating the film’s decisions. Craig knows how to duck and weave in the teen comedy formula, when to fulfill expectations and when to subvert them. Jokes land hard, then emotions hit harder, because it marries the sharp comic timing of a Mean Girls or Easy A with the more nuanced emotional dexterity and direct dramatic appeal of, say, a James L. Brooks film. (He was a producer here.) It starts on the level of wardrobe, with Steinfeld wearing believably haphazard adorable rumpled teen wardrobe: baggy sweatshirts, cute clashing patterns, eccentric layering. She’s an understandable relatable teenage girl, recognizable in her look and convincing in the psychology driving her. She’s clearly suffering, and there’s no easy answer to any of her problems. Some will fade with age and maturity. Others will take a little more work. And Craig’s screenplay is wise about allowing her to come to realizations on her own terms, without expecting an easy solution to end the film on an artificial happily-ever-after.
This isn’t a smartest-teen-in-the-room movie. It’s sweet and sour, candid and heartbreaking, often very funny, but true to the way real teenagers talk. And it surrounds Nadine with a whole family unhappy in their own ways, complicating what might appear at first glance to be standard stock types with smart casting and clever writing. We first see the brittle mom, cool brother, torn friend, cute crush (both the Good Guy (Hayden Szeto) and Bad Boy (Alexander Calvert) varieties), and cranky teacher as the best possible version of what you’d expect from their apparent narrative function, tangential to our lead’s world. But soon they’re complicated with compassionate, empathetic nuance. It’s a lot like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret in that way, another movie about a girl who learns that she has an effect on others, too. They’re not just figures in her life. She’s in theirs. This new awareness is the dawning of maturity, and though it’s not easy to get there, it’s fulfilling to make even one more step in the right direction.