It is a true joy to be surprised by a movie. By that I mean seeing a film you really weren’t aware of prior — you weren’t following buzz or keeping up with insider details; at most you possibly saw a trailer or two — and being genuinely impressed by it, having a thorough emotional connection with it, and being, in however small a way, changed through the experience of having watched it. I have already had that experience once this year with this past summer’s Kubo and the Two Strings; and now, with The Edge of Seventeen, I am fortunate enough to have had it a second time.
The film centers around Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), a seventeen-year-old high schooler who checks off many of the boxes we’ve come to associate with the protagonists in films about high schoolers. She is witty-but-awkward, feels isolated from most people her age, pines after someone she is too afraid to talk to, believes her single mother (her father passed away a few years prior) doesn’t understand or care about her, and is jealous of her older brother Darian, whom she believes has it far easier than she does. Nadine has exactly two people in her life she can call friends. The first is her best friend, Krista, who has had her back since they were little; and the second is her history teacher, Mr. Bruner — played by good-supporting-actor-on-the-cheap Woody Harrelson — who also serves as something of surrogate father figure for her. Nadine’s life is troubled but tolerable until the day she is shocked to discover that Krista and Darian have begun dating, an earth shattering event that puts their friendship into jeopardy and threatens to send Nadine into a downward spiral.
Perhaps that story sounds typical for these kind of movies; but what makes this picture special is that it strives for a unique sense of authenticity and reality in that story. It’s not that every single aspect of the story has documentary – level realism; but the most significant emotions, scenes, and aspects of the picture seem to come very close to how they would be in the real world. Let me put it another way: for many high school pictures, the tendency is not to present what high school was/is, in fact, actually like. Rather, many high school movies instead go for idealizations (i.e., what everyone wishes it was like) or caricatures (what everyone jokes and exaggerates about it being like) or simulacrums (what everyone thinks it was like when they aren’t thinking hard enough). It isn’t often that you watch a high school movie and walk away from it thinking that it actually genuinely captured some part of high school for you. The Edge of Seventeen is the rare film that tries and succeeds for that kind of actuality.
This is best seen with Nadine herself. She feels like a real high schooler in a way few protagonists in these kinds of films actually do. She certainly looks and acts and speaks the part (it probably helps that Steinfeld herself is only 19), at least when considering the high schoolers I’ve encountered recently. More importantly, though, she reminds me of actual people that I knew during my years in high school, including, I admit, myself at times. Sometimes that was because actual events in the movie mirrored events that either happened to me or to close friends of mine. For example, a scene where Nadine struggles to talk to anyone at party full of people she doesn’t know hits very close to home; as do scenes of her pestering Mr. Bruner during his lunch break. Other times it had less to do with actual events and more to do with sentiment. In other words, even if there was not a direct parallel between what she was doing in the movie and what I or someone close to me had done in my life, I completely understood her emotions as being genuine for someone that age. My high school self (a part of whom still hangs out in the recesses of my soul) could totally relate with her feelings of loneliness, anger, and sorrow; and as such I could comprehend the rationale behind her decisions.
Even so, though my high school self is very in tune with Nadine, I do admit that my older self, who has the benefit of perspective and experience, has a slightly different view on the matter. As I said, I understood a lot of Nadine’s feelings, but, as an adult, I also understand that her character — admittedly influenced by some bad luck — is also guilty of less than ideal behavior and attitudes. Like many high schoolers, she believes she knows more than she really does and possesses a certain egotism that leads her not to realize how big a jerk she can be to others; and she does act like a jerk more than once in the film. I don’t say that to make her out to be a villain; I was much the same way when I was in high school, and I feel like it’s a phase many of us went through. And what’s great about the movie is that it understands this nuance — that Nadine has significant flaws but is also not a bad person. It doesn’t attempt to hide Nadine’s blemishes; it doesn’t go for the low hanging high school movie fruit of showing her as the only reasonable person in an unreasonable work; rather, it incorporates her negatives as part of her character and ultimately uses it as great fodder for story and growth. Again, it feels very real.
This is all just another way of saying that Nadine is a very special, authentic kind of protagonist who many will be able to relate to in both positive and negative senses. Ordinarily I don’t devote this much electronic ink to a single character in a film, but this is a special case. The character that writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig and Hailee Steinfeld have created in Nadine is truly noteworthy; and they deserve a great deal of praise for what they’ve pulled off with her. Craig clearly remembers and understands the high school psyche, while Steinfeld seems to have successfully channeled her own teenage feelings into the role, to the benefit of her performance. As a side note, Steinfeld really is the best actress in Hollywood under 20. Granted, we all basically knew that back when she wowed in 2010’s True Grit, but this certainly reinforces it. If she didn’t do another film for the rest of her life, we’d still be talking about these performances many years hence.
The movie is great by virtue of Nadine’s character; but it’s enhanced by smart choices elsewhere. Again, many of these have to do with striving more authenticity and less “movieness,” even in seemingly typical movie situations. Take for example, a scene early on when Nadine and Darian’s mother leaves for the weekend. In other movies, that would mean a typical “rager” that involves too many people and the cops coming. Instead, only a handful of people between the two siblings come over, and while there is some drinking, only one person (Nadine) gets too drunk, which is closer, I think, to how those types of situations usually turn out. It’s refreshingly modest.
Similarly, I appreciated the grounded portrayal of Mr. Bruner. As someone occupying the wise teacher archetype, you might think he would throw tons of wisdom Nadine’s way concerning exactly what she should do in a given situation; but he does not. He mainly helps her by being a sounding board for her; and what little advice he does give is fairly short and blunt. It works all the same, though. Harrelson, through Craig’s superb writing and directing, does a good job of balancing outward annoyance at the fact that Nadine pesters him — even during his breaks — with the fact that he really does care about her. It’s a delicate push and pull, but the movie makes it work — particularly in a key moment late in the film — and his character is very appreciable as a result. And again, it’s a much closer approximation to reality to portray the character that way; and it means a lot if, by chance, you actually had a teacher like that in high school.
The last bit I’d like to point out is the portrayal of Darian in the film. Nadine views him as a villain; and in a lesser or more typical high school movie, he probably would be. But again, this movie is very smart and so it doesn’t treat him like an antagonist. Though we see much of him through Nadine’s perspective, the film makes a point to eventually show us sides to his character in order to reveal the misguidedness in her perspective. He really is a good guy, too. And again, that’s closer to reality.
After having spoken so much about authenticity and reality in this review, it is worth mentioning again that this movie does not perfectly represent reality. There are still scenes and situations in this picture that only work in a movie world. But again, in the most important ways, in the most key moments, this movie does try to aim for authenticity; and the fact that it succeeds at that while still feeling very meaningful and cathartic makes this picture very unique and important in this current landscape. As far as I am concerned this is the best high school film in years, and one of the best ever made, period.
In short, I really, really enjoyed The Edge of Seventeen; and I recommend that you check it out (you’ll probably have plenty of time to see a movie or two over Thanksgiving break), because you might enjoy it too. It is rated R, so be prepared for some tense moments and language, but it’s definitely worth seeing. You don’t get movies like this often.