The Welcome Teen Movie Complexity of ‘The Edge of Seventeen’

High school is messy, but few movies have captured that messiness with the nuance of Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut.

There’s a very specific kind of jerky cynical teenage outsider, the kind that’s smarter than their contemporaries and knows it, that uses wit to show their contempt and intellectual superiority at the slightest provocation, that references better books and cooler music and older movies than their peers and does not hesitate to drop a reference to any and all of them, who’s aware that school is bullshit and sports are bullshit and cliques are bullshit and all these people are bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. And underneath that surface and brittle bravado, directly and dangerously underneath it, there is a fragility and sensitivity and desperation to not have to feel any of those things and know any of that stuff. We’ve known teenagers like this. We might’ve been one.

Nadine, the teenager at the center of Kelly Fremon Craig’s remarkable directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen, is the kind of mess that movie teens – even in great teen movies – rarely have the luxury of being, and there’s no one way Craig wants you to feel about her. Nadine is charming and infuriating, mean and insightful, brilliant and bonkers, self-aware and self-destructive. Early in the movie, as her best pal Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) holds Nadine’s hair back while she throws up, she muses between hurls, “How do you like me? What’s wrong with you? I don’t even like me.” It’s a line delivered with a just-joking snap, and just enough of an edge that you know she’s not just joking.

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She’s played by Hailee Steinfeld in a roman candle of a performance, charging into the movie in her Chucks and wool socks and ugly ‘80s winter coat, spouting profanities and threats and shock-value sex talk, and at frame one, she’s already had enough. She’s mean to pretty much everybody, but no one more than herself; when she’s trying to be ingratiating at a party and failing miserably, she locks herself into the bathroom, looks at herself in the mirror, and asks, “God, why are you so awkward?”

Craig’s screenplay knows the discomfort of being at that party when you are resolutely not a “party person,” or a “cafeteria person,” or, frankly, a “life person.” Edge of Seventeen comes under the aegis of producer James L. Brooks, whose got a good nose for this kind of thing; in 1989, he put his stamp of approval on Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut Say Anything, and seven years later, he lent a hand to Wes Anderson’s first feature Bottle Rocket. It is not hyperbole to note that his latest production deserves comparison with those; this is a man who’s been writing character comedy so long that he clearly appreciates writers who hear how people talk, know how people interact, and create recognizable narratives, while filtering them through their own specific sensibility.

Most importantly, Craig takes Nadine and what she’s going through seriously, performing a tricky high-wire act of knowing how small these conflicts ultimately are, but remembering how they feel, in the moment, like a tunnel you will never come out of. There’s a particularly tough scene where she’s gotten herself into what she, somewhere in the back of her mind, knows will be an awful encounter with a terrible boy, and it goes about as you’d expect, and she responds appropriately, with a withering cut. What happens after – how he responds, how she turns on a dime to pleading desperation and back – is so raw and true, it’s hard to watch. And the symphony of things that are happening on Steinfeld’s face as she runs away are staggering.

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She’s been plenty great in plenty of other movies – from her Oscar-nominated debut in True Grit forward – but this is truly her coming-out party, a movie that will, if there’s any justice left in this world, do for her what Easy A (a film whose spark and intelligence it frequently recalls) did for Emma Stone. Her comic timing is ridiculous, she pivots to the serious beats with the speed Craig requires, and she knows how to fill a silence. Woody Harrelson, as her favorite teacher, is so bang-on you wonder why he hasn’t done a dozen of these roles, and the “favorite student” scene is like a master class in duet acting. And Blake Jenner (from Everybody Wants Some!!) is quietly wonderful as her too-together, ultra-popular older brother, so keenly embodying the character that we don’t notice, until very late, how thoroughly the picture’s put us into his head too.

Movies like The Edge of Seventeen are hard. It’s hard to make them feel authentic, hard to resist falling into age-old tropes and types, hard for the grown-ups who are making them to keep from believing writing younger characters means writing regular characters, only dumber. Kelly Fremon Craig’s characters aren’t dumb, and neither is her movie; it’s fast, and sly, and funny, and so keenly observed it hurts.

The Edge of Seventeen is out Friday.