The dramatic teen comedy reborn
Why is Steinfeld not nominated for this performance?
The Edge of Seventeen
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
104 minutes, rated M
When I first started reviewing movies in 1984, neurotic teenagers were in full bloom. That was the heyday of John Hughes: Molly Ringwald was Pretty in Pink and Matthew Broderick would soon take the day off as Ferris Bueller. Teenage angst had never been so big, nor so histrionic. Hughes mined a lot of humour from overheating things. Storms in teacups were his speciality, although he tried not to trivialise the volcanic emotions of his characters.
For every John Hughes film there were ten throwaways in which teen neurosis was simply an excuse for bad behaviour that would entertain the target group – usually involving a big party, sex and barfing.
Hailee Steinfeld does indeed embrace the bowl in The Edge of Seventeen and there is some frank sex talk. There is also more angst than her character knows what to do with. And yet, first time director Kelly Fremon Craig makes it so fresh that the dramatic teen comedy feels reborn. She opens our eyes to what it is like now to be smart, 17 and female – which is to say truly, madly, deeply nuts.
Nadine (Steinfeld, who was 19 during filming) has her reasons. Her father, whom she adored, has died a few years earlier. Her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is now missing in action as a parent. Mona is so insecure that she can’t see that her daughter is drowning in self-doubt and loneliness. Nadine’s older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is so perfect, so together, so irritating, that Nadine can’t stand him. Thank heaven she still has her one true friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best pal since they were awkward little girls in the playground.
Steinfeld begins her performance at fever pitch, then cranks it up. It’s an astonishing high-wire act, one of the most sustained and perceptive and complete performances I’ve seen in years. If she does not get a nomination, there is no justice. She understands every tic of this beautiful, smart, talented and unhappy girl, but this is mostly a comedy. She has to be funny and make us love her before she turns into a banshee, otherwise the audience will just condemn her as another teen witch. Steinfeld does that by making it plain that everything Nadine says and feels is true, and by never losing sight of the wider world. She’s too smart to fall into despondency and yet she’s terrified of who and what she might be. Her biggest fear is that she has to spend the rest of her life inside herself. The only thing keeping her from giving up is her English teacher, Mr Bruner (Woody Harrelson), whose lunch hour she regularly invades to download her roiling emotions. This is a perfect example of why Harrelson is so sought after by directors. If he has ever been drier in a role, I can’t remember it.
None of what Nadine is enduring is that different to what Molly Ringwald went through – except that Nadine has a mobile phone to get herself into more trouble. What’s different is the seriousness with which director Fremon Craig treats Nadine’s emotions and the truth with which Steinfeld plays them. There is a storm, but no teacup, no sense of a director’s omnipotence or ironic distance.
That might be partly because the project was superintended by James L. Brooks, a Hollywood legend who has excelled in both cinema (Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment) and television (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, Rhoda). Brooks started as a journalist and he takes a journalistic approach to story: do the research. When Fremon Craig took her first draft to his Gracie Films four years ago, he told her to stop writing and start researching 17-year-old girls. The reality of that research shows in the depth of characterisation here. The film feels like it’s happening now, in millions of high schools around the world, not just in America. That’s beyond rare in a movie; closer to unprecedented.
The Edge of Seventeen deserves a place among the greats in this genre. It’s hilarious and heart-breaking. It’s also invigorating to see that brave new talent can still find a way.