Engaging performances give ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ an edge over other high school films

“The Edge of Seventeen” – Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is not 16-years-old and on the cusp or edge of turning 17.  No, Nadine is already 17, and I believe that the “edge” in this film’s title refers to the acidity can come with this particular age.   As the movie plays out, Nadine feels that the “Game of Life” did not exactly deal her a straight flush, however, in this new high school comedy/drama, the audience quickly learns that the world does not spill figurative acid on her either.  Nadine spills it on herself.  Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig addresses familiar personal growth themes, but her movie deserves our attention with hilarious moments and engaging performances which cover the struggling teen years.

Steinfeld works her magic to transform herself to a self-loathing, nearly friendless girl who might as well have “woe is me” tattooed on her forehead.  Her lousy attitude began at the age of seven when she concluded that there are two types of people in this world:  Those who are carefree and confident and those who hope that the carefree and confident ones die in an explosion.

Her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner) fits into the former category, and, of course, Nadine slides into the latter.  Krista – another unpopular girl, but who carries a healthy, positive attitude – befriends Nadine in elementary school, and they remain BFFs through their years at Lakeview High School in a nice, Pacific Northwest suburb.

One day, however, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) gets a boyfriend, and for reasons that I will not reveal, Nadine makes her best friend choose between her new beau and her.  Krista goes with her heart and picks her boyfriend, and Nadine’s existence – in her mind – suddenly becomes a living nightmare.   Seemingly always sported with a sky blue, polyester winter jacket, a skirt and mod basketball sneakers, Nadine forms her own counter culture (of one) and passive aggressively rages against a system that she sees pitted against her.   Refusing to compromise and make other friends, she’d rather sit in self-pity or even threaten suicide rather than pull herself up by her shoelaces and put on a smile.

Before you begin wondering if “The Edge of Seventeen” is void of smiles, it certainly is not.  Nadine’s two other confidents provide plenty of perfectly-timed comic relief:  her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and a classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who takes a keen interest in her.

With Krista enjoying time with her new boyfriend off-camera, Nadine forgoes looking to her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) for advice, and turns to Mr. Bruner instead, when she is not teasing him about his follicly-challenged hairline or modest teacher’s salary.  Bruner delivers verbal jabs of his own with the cynical methodology of an overworked school teacher, but his underlying support for Nadine does shine through their back and forth bantering.

Now, to say that the exchanges between Szeto and Steinfeld are priceless would be a complete understatement, as Erwin constantly attempts to win over Nadine in the clumsiest, but also in the most utterly genuine, gentle ways.  While Nadine is internally consumed with losing her best friend, she either does not realize or does not want to realize that this guy is sincerely interested and a great catch!  Craig’s clever writing and Szeto’s deliberately awkward performance offer many of the biggest laughs in the film, including a potential first kiss that goes terribly sideways.

With Nadine’s perception that her life is sideways, the film effectively communicates and establishes that close relationships with her mom, Darian or anyone else do not stand much of a chance.  In addition, without a male role model in Nadine’s life, Mr. Bruner and Erwin help fill a need, even though she does not completely grasp the amount depth that they both carry.

In order for Nadine to see the beauty in people and her environment, she needs to first raise her self-esteem and identify her self-worth.  Steinfeld’s committed performance will make you hope than Nadine fundamentally changes from being her own worst enemy to becoming her own biggest champion.  No one said that it will be easy, but there is a reason why the age of 17 has an edge.

(3/4 stars)

Image credits:  STX Entertainment

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