After breaking through with 2010’s True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld was positioned to take over Hollywood. Somehow, though, even though Steinfeld has acted in plenty of films since then, it’s taken six years for her to land something that really showcases her talent again. The Edge of Seventeen isn’t too far removed from other coming-of-age comedies, but there’s a freshness to the material, highlighted most by the wit and emotions on display by Steinfeld, that make it a revelation.
High school student Nadine (Steinfeld) hasn’t ever been a truly happy child. She’s caught in the shadow of her more popular, seemingly perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), her relationship with her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) has always been strained, and her father – the one member of the family she got along with – died years ago, in front of her. The one person keeping Nadine from being a complete recluse is her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), which is enough for Nadine. That is, until Krista sleeps with Darian. Feeling betrayed, Nadine cuts Krista off and searches for new connections with a nerdy classmate (Hayden Szeto), her prickly history teacher (Woody Harrelson), and the aloof object of her affection, Nick (Alexander Calvert).
Like many coming-of-age stories, The Edge of Seventeen is less driven by a single plot and more by a series of interconnected events. Most of them play out humorously, but thanks to the work of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, there’s an honesty that’s apparent in all of the scenes. Everything that happens to and with Nadine may be funnier than how it might play out in real life, but it still feels authentic. Nadine’s estrangement from Krista doesn’t come automatically; instead, it feels organic, as Nadine begins to feel the full impact of Krista and Darian’s new relationship.
It helps immeasurably that Steinfeld is the actress playing Nadine. With someone else in the role, Nadine’s immaturity would be annoying at best, but Steinfeld brings enough of a maturity and charm to Nadine to make her both believable and watchable. More than that, though, Nadine is a relatable character in Steinfeld’s hands. She’s also, thankfully, surrounded by a talented supporting cast. Harrelson and Sedgwick aren’t surprises in their talents, but they do bring their A-game to the material. The younger supporting cast, meanwhile, make sure their characters aren’t just one-note pieces of the background. Jenner easily sells the perfect image, but with something more troubling behind his eyes. Richardson, meanwhile, never comes across as cruel in her actions, so while it’s easy to understand why Nadine would react how she does towards Krista, it’s impossible to hate Krista. And Szeto is completely adorable as the nerd with a not-so-secret crush on Nadine.
Every generation deserves their own coming-of-age comedy that fits in the moment, but can stand as a marker of the generation for years to come. Whether they’re hits in the moment or years down the road, we’ve seen this every ten years or so, but it seems like we’re lacking a new film that works for today. The Edge of Seventeen has the potential to be that movie. The movie itself is great – it’s fun and relatable, and worthy of rewatching. Now it just needs an audience to make it 2016’s answer to Mean Girls.