High school is an emotional maelstrom, a place where unless you’re one of the lucky popular few, your self-esteem is routinely tested by slights both real and imagined. The ultimate triviality of it all only becomes apparent well after graduation.
“The Edge of Seventeen,” like many great movies of the past set in this world, revolves around this fundamental idea.
It’s the story of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), a junior at a suburban school who relies on her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) as a salve against the vagaries and awkwardness of being misunderstood at school and at home, and finds everything called into question when Krista begins a relationship with Nadine’s jock brother Darian (Blake Jenner).
Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig pitches the movie in a state of heightened panic, capturing the pain and frustration that engulfs Nadine after a revelation that only serves to enhance her already dominant sense that she’s alone in the world.
There’s plenty of humor here in the character’s subsequent misadventures, but the movie is characterized by the same fundamental seriousness that, yes, John Hughes brought to this world. The authentic emotions inspire a sort of immersive empathy that at once serves as a distillation of youthful passions and a reminder that the experience of feeling isolated from everyone around you is not exclusive to the teenage years.
Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee for her debut in the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit,” finally gets another part that really makes use of her charismatic presence. Here, she displays the true acting gift of being able to convey anger and moodiness from a convincing place. Even as her character lashes out at everyone and everything around her, for reasons that are both justified and entirely overwrought, you understand why it’s happening and share her outrage.
There’s a lot more to Nadine that simple anger, of course. The death of her father (several years before the main events of the picture) looms large. He understood her offbeat self in a way her mom (Kyra Sedgwick) simply can’t. Nadine’s acerbic sparring with a disaffected teacher (Woody Harrelson) highlights a soulfulness that simply sets her apart from peers who would rather play beer pong at a house party than read a book.
It’s a portrait of a young woman in full, slowly learning to define herself based on who she is and what she values rather than how others make her feel.