By Chaz Lipp
At the center of writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen is a believable and touching performance by Hailee Steinfeld. The actress rose to prominence in a big way with her Oscar-nominated debut in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. She was just 13 years old. While Fremon Craig’s screenplay skimps on development for every single supporting character in Edge, she’s written a doozy for now 19-year-old Steinfeld. As perpetually angsty Nadine, a junior at an Oregon high school, Steinfeld ably carries the entire film and even convinces us that Edge is deeper than it actually is.
In fact, The Edge of Seventeen settles for being merely good instead of great—it threatens to transcend teen movie cliches without actually doing so. A little more exploration of the people within Nadine’s sphere could’ve pushed the film to that next level. Nadine lost her father (endearingly portrayed by Eric Keenleyside) four years earlier. She, her mom Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), and slightly-older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) are dealing with their grief in different ways. Nadine finds herself the odd-gal-out as Mona has grown overly dependent upon Darian. Her world implodes when extrovert Darian begins a relationship with her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).
The general idea here is that Nadine has gotten too wrapped up in her own drama. She’s self-centered, failing to recognize that she isn’t the only person in her family profoundly affected by her father’s sudden, premature death. As she gradually warms to the advances of awkward classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto, who at 31 comes across as way too mature for the role), her guard begins to come down. But as she inadvertently toys with Erwin, sending mixed messages she’s too inexperienced to be fully aware of, Nadine pursues a superfluous crush on mysterious, moody Nick (Alexander Calvert). What she looking for (or even what she thinks she looking for) in these guys is left undeveloped.
At regular intervals, Nadine seeks guidance from history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). Though second-billed Harrelson is perfect as the frazzled teacher, Fremon Craig has written him a painfully thin role. While Bruner and Nadine’s relationship follows a discernible arc, it feels like something is missing. What does Nadine really learn from this vaguely fatherly figure? Not much. And that nagging feeling that key moments either weren’t written or perhaps wound up on the cutting room floor plagues Edge. All of these supporting characters are more interesting than they’re allowed to be. Which underlines the central problem: Edge is a movie about a self-centered teen, but its writer-director indulges that self-centeredness. Fremon Craig manages to miss the point of her own movie—that Nadine must begin seeing things from other points of view (and to stop stereotyping people) in order to grow as an individual.
In its best scenes The Edge of Seventeen is funny in a natural, unforced way. The cast, especially Steinfeld, is imminently likable. But Kelly Fremon Craig stymies her own work by settling for far too easy resolutions. Steinfeld digs deep and manages to add some real depth, but in the end Nadine isn’t permitted to improve herself
The Edge of Seventeen Images: STX Entertainment