Sometimes a movie lets you know you’re in good hands right away, even when what it’s trying to do shouldn’t work at all. Edge of Seventeen opens with Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), a high school junior, breathlessly interrupting her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) while he attempts to enjoy a lunch break to declare her intentions to kill herself. He replies with a mix of exasperation and sarcasm before sharing his own extemporaneously penned suicide note positing her as the reason he’s lost the will to live. This should be horrifying. It’s pretty much the worst possible response to a girl in the middle of a crisis. Instead it’s funny in a way that lets an unspoken warmth radiate between the insults without underselling the seriousness of the teenage drama that’s driven Nadine to the brink.
For Nadine, it’s also the right response. As the film flashes back to reveal what’s led to this moment of crisis, we get to know her as a socially awkward outsider with a sharp tongue, an eccentric sense of fashion, and little respect for authority. She’s a high school misfit who mostly seems happy with her status as an outsider. After all, in Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), she has a devoted, lifelong best friend — a Jane to her Daria — who seems to understand that part of her role in life is to stay put together while Nadine remains on the verge of falling part. This hasn’t always easy, especially in the years since Nadine’s loving father died, leaving her, and her big man on campus older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), in the care of her short-tempered, high-maintenance mother (Kyra Sedgwick). When Krista begins dating Darian, however, Nadine’s life starts to spin out of control.
The first feature film written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, Edge of Seventeen both captures the way loneliness and the threat of change can feel apocalyptic when you’re a teen and studies that feeling from a distance. Like Mr. Bruner, Craig understands that Nadine’s at least partly living in an overblown drama of her own creation, but it also understands that she doesn’t have the perspective to understand this. It’s knowing without being condescending, grounded by Steinfeld’s intense, sympathetic, and funny performance. She’s believable breaking down in a tearful monologue but just as convincing at folding those feelings of hurt and fear into Craig’s barbed dialogue.
It’s likely we’ll be hearing Craig’s dialogue quite a bit in the future. If ultimately Edge of Seventeen tells a coming-of-age story we’ve seen before — up to and including a finale that’s a little too neat and easy for all the messiness that precedes it — the voice used to tell it sets it apart. Precise and quotable but never arch, it mixes wit, affection, and an understanding that the relationships that bring us the most joy can also bring us the most pain. (James L. Brooks serves as the film’s producer and it’s likely he sees in Craig a kindred spirit.)
Edge of Seventeen captures and elevates the voices of people who care about each other deeply but also how to hurt each other with laser-like accuracy. It’s almost possible to hear the air leave the room when Nadine levels precisely calculated insults at both Darian and Krista, the two people she needs the most and the two she seems determined to push away. If not letting herself be vulnerable means being alone, she seems OK with that, at least until it turns into a crisis.
For all the moments of drama in the film, which turns on a no-good-very-bad-day in which an act of defiance becomes a mounting crisis, some of the film’s best moments are its most relaxed. Nadine reluctantly builds a friendship with Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a classmate with an obvious interest in her who seems incapable of talking to girls without tripping over his words. At one point the film slows the action to follow them on an outing to a theme park with all the false starts and awkwardness of an evening in which neither party quite knows if they’re on a date or not. Where a lot of teen comedies hurry, Craig gives hers time to breathe.
The best relationship, however, belongs to Nadine and Mr. Bruner, who makes his fondness for Nadine is evident in everything but the words he says. Even his compliments come packaged in an irony that stops just short of canceling them out. Harrelson hasn’t had a chance to be this related and charming in a while, and he takes to the opportunity, creating a character who might be a terrible mentor for anyone else but is exactly who Nadine needs to get her through the drama of being smart, awkward, scared, and seventeen. He’s been where she is now and knows what it takes to get her to the other side, no matter how cruel it might look from the outside.