When Nadine’s best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother (whom she loathes and therefore Krista must loathe as well), she issues an ultimatum: Krista cannot date her brother and remain her best friend; she must pick one. Of course, that’s a no-brainer for Krista when popular and hunky Darian finally takes notice of her and declares he actually wants to become “official” with her. Now social wallflower Nadine is stuck having to live out the rest of junior year on her own. While most would call The Edge of Seventeen a coming-of-age tale, it’s actually more of a story about overcoming codependency.
Hailee Steinfeld, who gave a breakout performance in True Grit a few years back, stars as Nadine. It’s obvious early on that Nadine hate the world around her and herself. She would be a psychiatrist’s field day, as she is hung up on the oppressive nature of anything that’s permanent, particularly parts of our bodies that are unalterable, and the inevitably of death. Whenever confronted, she lashes out, usually in a slew of observations about someone’s personal appearance, specific qualities that cannot change.
Woody Harrelson plays her history teacher who can sling it back just as harshly as she serves it to him. Although hesitant in the beginning, Mr. Bruner becomes the new receptacle into which she unloads her antisocial rants. Kyra Sedgwick, as Nadine and Darian’s mother, is just as self-centered as her daughter, although in a different way. Materialistic and trying to find answers through therapy and playing the online singles game, Mona’s neuroses mirror her daughter’s, even though neither of them may ever recognize this.
Nadine’s dream boy, Nick (Alexander Calvert), is the only person in the school she’s remotely interested in, but she admires him from afar and has endowed him with a personality he can’t possibly live up to; the same way she is hung-up on some people’s physical flaws, she is obsessed with Nick’s perfect image.
Then there’s Hayden Szeto as Erwin, the awkward but charming geek who sits next to her in class. He continually asks her out her in subtle, noncommittal ways, and the chemistry between Szeto and Steinfeld is something that will have viewers rewatching this film. As harsh as Nadine can be, Erwin lobs back responses that are just too funny for her to write him off. Erwin knows he’s got his work cut out for him, and he doesn’t let up.
Blake Jenner from Everybody Wants Some! is the real standout, as Nadine’s jock brother Darian. Since the death of their father, the brother and sister have drifted apart. Darian has poured himself into living healthy and playing sports, while Nadine has gone in a more self-destructive direction. His character could easily have been written as comic relief, but we eventually learn the legit motivation behind his lifestyle. Likewise, all the supporting characters are fleshed out and shown to have depth beyond their face value. It’s really Nadine who has become oblivious to everyone around her in the wake of her father’s death.
The Edge of Seventeen is being compared to Sixteen Candles, Mean Girls, and Juno. Those all had empathetic young female protagonists with difficult lives: the less-popular younger sister; the girl who grew up in the African bush and had no understanding of American culture; and the pregnant teen who spouted off those Diablo Cody witticisms that proved she was smarter than everyone around her. Nadine is quite a different cup of tea, though. As we’re asked to root for her, it’s not exactly clear why we should. She doesn’t seem to have any passions in life aside from making fun of people who do have passions. Now without her sidekick, Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson), she has to face the world by herself.
The great James L. Brooks co-produced this directorial debut by Kelly Fremon Craig, based on her original screenplay. Nadine is aligned with other Brooks characters such as Aurora Greenway from Terms of Endearment and Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets; abrasive malcontents who come around to realizing everyone around them is coping with just as much as they are. The Edge of Seventeen flourishes in giving us a Brooks-ian persona for the millennial generation. It’s the rare achievement for a movie about teenagers: they have layers.