To be a teenager is to be dramatic. At no time in your life do you go through more change with less ability to understand any of it or affect it in any meaningful way. You’re asked to grapple with the complexities of romance and career and education and major life decision-making all at the same time you want nothing but to indulge in all the new base instincts you’re slowly discovering and the hope against hope is that you’re not too fucked up when it’s all over.
That’s why teenagerdom holds such a special place in film culture and why it always will. At no other time do the smallest decisions hold infinite weight. At no other time do our wants and needs and desires all feel so intermingled and so urgent and yet have solutions that feel so relatable and profound. We are not perfect in that time period, and yet we can understand every flaw.
And it’s that imperfection that The Edge of Seventeen really hones in on. Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut feature has crafted an unflinchingly (on the movies’ part, you may flinch more than a few times) real portrait of being a teenager and dived in deep. Every moment feels authentic and lived in, every character feels recognizable. It’s a minor miracle to see a film so willing to indulge every part of the teen movie artifice and come out feeling more understanding of what people are at the end.
It’s a simple enough story. Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a high school junior whose older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is Big Man on Campus, she always lives in his shadow, even with her distracted mother (Kyra Sedgwick). Then, her best friend Krista (Haley Richardson) starts dating her brother! Which is totally mortifying, right? This all sends Nadine into a bit of existential tizzy she tries to navigate, alongside her awkward new friendship/crush Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) and an unrequited love for a bad boy (Alexander Calvert) who doesn’t know she exists, with nothing but her sarcasm and Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), her droll history teacher.
It’s a collection of types, sure. But what Craig seems to have a knack for is what those types actually mean about people and who they are, and how to give them just the right hint of nuance and tangibility.
Take, for example, Nadine herself. Nadine is the “disaffected with her generation with just a hint of tragedy under the surface” type that we’ve seen in basically every teen film since Juno altered the genre. She’s sarcastic, brusque, and isolates herself to her own chagrin.
“Everyone in the world is as miserable and empty as I am, they’re just better at pretending,” she and her mother tell us.
But it’s a statement like that helps to pull you in close. It’s that often we understand reasons for isolation like that, that we feel fooled into believing that no one else thinks them but rather discover that everyone else does. The isolated are relatable because we often see ourselves in them. And it’s not self-pity in that statement, but rather self-loathing. She’s not selfish, she legitimately is not okay, has a dark sense of who she is.
Ebert once said that movies are “a machine that generates empathy.” That’s the overwhelming mission of The Edge of Seventeen. It’s not gawking, it’s not maudlin. It’s pulling you in close to understand the raw, twitching nerve that are emotions and people at that age. Craig has created something that feels like anyone’s experience, and the closer you are to those teenage years, the more you will see of yourself.
It’s also knowing just the right details. It’s not a period piece, but it feels of a unique place. The film’s music use is particularly emblematic, not using to push and prod emotions like the strings of a melodrama, but just as a part of the world. We hear a few recognizable songs on radios and record players, they give shading and fleshing out to the character, always this movie is about character. It’s the kind of mode that makes the one break of it all the more powerful and heartbreaking.
Of course, much is also due to the performers. Harrellson has never been better cast and more up to the challenge, and Jenner continues, from his great turn in Everybody Wants Some!!, to reveal a surprising ability to piece out the exact little complexities of masculinity.
But this is Steinfeld’s movie and she absolutely does not disappoint. An Oscar-nominated actress gives the absolute best performance of her career so far. She’s absolutely phenomenal, all precisely metered out sarcasm and wit with a layer of pain underlying every word. She’s absolutely in control of what she’s doing and is a tour de force at every turn. The Edge of Seventeen is worth it for what she’s doing alone.
But there is a lot more. This is a deeply recognizable, empathetic wonder work of a film, the kind that just “gets it.” You may spend so much (like I did) barely able to look at the screen out of second-hand embarrassment, but that’s only because the film knows how to get its hooks in you and make you feel what it’s doing. For a brief while, you’re remembering what it’s like to be a teenager and boy does that bring back a whole lot of feelings.