Teen angst has always been with us, but it’s rarely captured on film with the insight and hilarity on display in “The Edge of Seventeen.”
Hailee Stienfeld, who won an Oscar nomination for her first movie (2010’s “True Grit”), seems likely to snag another one for her performance as Nadine, a 16-year-old whose emotional wisdom lags way behind her book learning.
“I just had the worse thought,” she confides. “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself.”
Nadine joins a short list of adolescent film heroines (like those of “Juno” and “Ghost World”) who have done heroic battle with the inanities of teenage life. And she has more than little of "Catcher in the Rye‘s" Holden Caulfield percolating through her bloodstream.
But as with those characters, behind Nadine’s assured bluster there’s an awkward child utterly terrified at the notion of adulthood.
Kelly Fremon Craig’s film starts with a backstory — how Nadine lost her beloved father to a heart attack. She resents his absence every single day, and the injustice of his passing leaves her riding an emotional razor blade.
She has found a substitute of sorts with Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), her history teacher, whom she engages in combative, provocative banter. He finds Nadine exasperating and self-absorbed, but keeps being drawn back to her sardonic wit. These two could trade verbal punches all day long.
“The Edge of Seventeen” (a generic title that sounds like something generated by a computer program) centers on two major plot lines, neither of which may seem like a big deal to adults but which to Nadine are the alpha and omega of her existence.
The first is a betrayal by her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who has had the temerity to fall for Nadine’s big brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Darian is a handsome senior jock — probably a Republican for crying out loud. He represents all the things about high school that Nadine despises.
And now Krista has gone over to the enemy. It’s enough to make a girl act out in inappropriate ways.
Like throwing herself at Nick (Alexander Calvert), a dreamy-eyed boy fresh from juvie who feeds the fish at one of those big pet megastores. He’s a like a modern-day James Dean, only without the self-torment. Or, for that matter, any talent. But, yeah, he’s cute in a poseur/juvenile delinquent way.
Of course, if Nadine wasn’t so completely focused on her own alienation she might notice that Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a dweeby Asian American classmate and aspiring comic book artist, all but worships her.
None of this sounds particularly original, yet writer/director Craig keeps things perking along with scintillatingly good dialogue and a genuine affection for her often maddening heroine.
Everyone here is good (haven’t even mentioned Kyra Sedgwick’s nice turn as Nadine’s love-challenged mom), but Steinfeld is the real revelation. Mishandled, Nadine’s self-pity could be alienating, her thoughtless cruelties unforgivable.
But like the people in her orbit, we recognize Nadine’s core of smart, caring womanhood. It’s just waiting to break free.