If you’ve already seen the Reader-certified “A” films down at Film Streams, Certain Women and Moonlight, then you might be pleasantly surprised to see a low-budget wide release that’s easy to imagine screening in an “arthouse” theater. Don’t let the trailers for The Edge of Seventeen fool you. They try to sell a bright and heartwarming coming-of-age comedy for young adults. There’s a little bit of that but, fortunately, The Edge of Seventeen is a much more offbeat dark-comedy that’s also one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
Any misconceptions the trailers might have given you about the film are pretty much vanquished by the brilliant opening scene. High schooler Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) storms into her history teacher’s (Woody Harrelson) classroom and announces a plan to kill herself. The teacher is unimpressed, as Nadine decides to jump off an overpass, then can’t make up her mind about what type of vehicle she wants to hit her on the way down. She worries getting hit by a semi-truck at the wrong angle might leave her in a vegetative state and doesn’t want to aim for a bus because “I don’t want to be a dick who makes people watch.”
It’s clever gallows-humor by first-time writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig that I’m sure would still get laughs being delivered by other actresses, but Steinfeld’s performance takes it to the next level. She’s an impossibly charismatic performer, and I mean that literally. Her charisma must actually violate laws of the physical universe, because it takes most performers entire films to create three-dimensional characters that we care about and Steinfeld does it on sight. Her performance in The Edge of Seventeen was great enough to officially turn me into a fan. The next film Steinfeld’s in, I’ll likely buy a ticket, just to see her.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt the film that Craig’s excellent writing and a killer supporting cast mostly manage to keep up with Steinfeld. The plot picks up just as Nadine’s childhood best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and all-star older brother (Blake Jenner) start dating. A contemptuous relationship with her mother (Kyra Sedgewick), a crush on the school’s bad boy and a budding romance with an art nerd (Hayden Szeto) only add to Nadine’s anxiety as she grieves the loss of her father. Simply put, all of these actors are great, and Craig makes sure all of her characters are given there due. I haven’t seen many films where every character felt fully rounded.
Sometimes, The Edge of Seventeen covers familiar territory, even if it’s covered with much more depth than usual. I loved the opening scene and Harrelson’s character, but the teacher/student mentor arc overall has been well played out in films about high school. It feels a bit awkward to see such a familiar subplot in a pretty subversive film, and I suppose the same could be said about Nadine’s crush on the bad boy being interrupted by a new nice guy. Still, even when The Edge of Seventeen missteps, Steinfeld keeps the film headed in the right direction.
Grade = A-