Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen loves her characters so much she allows them to dictate the story. The movie is hard to pin down because there’s no great plot or obstacle to overcome. The obstacles are the characters themselves.
So many Hollywood stories are clear outlines of events. By that I mean, you can clearly see the structure of the movie; and within a certain margin of error predict where’s it’s going to go. They are story driven, and their characters are mere puppets of the screenwriter’s imagination.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a junior in high school. That alone is enough of a burden for any one person. She has one close friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), a seemingly perfect brother Darian (Blake Jenner), and a mother prone to histrionics Mona (Kyra Sedgwick).
Krista and Nadine seem inseparable. That is until Krista starts dating Darian. Darian and Nadine’s relationship, because they are both teenagers, is fraught with animosity and caustic remarks. One of the joys of the movie is that it allows it’s characters to do and say the wrong things. People are messy volatile creatures who rarely say the right thing. Especially when you are going through puberty and feeling any emotion at all.
Nadine is maddeningly infuriating while at the same time being so awkward you want to reach out to the screen and hug her. She’s a seventeen-year-old girl. Craig allows Nadine to make mistakes. More importantly, she allows us to hate her for her mistakes. Steinfeld gives an impressive showing. There is an audaciousness in her performance; mixing broad comedy with nuanced behavior.
For a movie about teenagers, Edge of Seventeen is incredibly emotionally mature. It understands how conversations can flow or stutter. Conversations with Darian or Mona flow effortlessly because they’re family and we talk to them differently than other people. They tend to be filled with emotional landmines. Teenagers being, well, teenagers have no problem stepping on them. Families know where the bodies are hidden as it were.
Conversations with others, such as the cute boy who sits next to her, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) the conversation starts and sputters. For both of them. Because when you’re a teenager all conversations with people you find cute are horrifying. The way Erwin struggles to even get a coherent thought out over Nadine’s torrent of insecure babble is one of the many charms of the movie.
When Nadine latches onto her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) like a confessor to a priest. The way the conversation behaves changes again. Nadine goes on long melodramatic monologs while Bruner sits and listens. Again, teenagers express every emotion as they feel it. Mr. Bruner chooses his words carefully. He’s honest with Nadine because he recognizes she needs it. He never talks down to Nadine; he’s always blunt with her.
Kelly Craig makes Nadine a giant, lovable mess of a character. But the astonishing feat is the amount of empathy she creates for all those involved. Yes, we feel for Nadine. But we also feel for Krista and the unfairness of having your best friend force you to choose between her or her brother. We feel for Nadine’s mother, Mona. Yes, she may be a long way from winning Mother of the year award, but life isn’t exactly easy for her.
So many movies seem to hate their characters and relish in punishing them. Craig doesn’t enjoy putting Nadine in awkward situations, but Nadine can’t help herself and neither can Craig. One of the reasons the movie resonates so powerfully is because Nadine is just as neurotic and selfish as we are. So when she apologizes or realizes how wrong she’s been, we can relate. Or when she finally realizes how awesome Erwin is we can celebrate along with her at the realization.
The Edge of Seventeen is hard to predict not because of lack of story or narrative drive, but because these are real people. By the end, no one has really changed. But they have learned to view the other people in their lives with more dimensions and mercy.