I’ll forever be indecisive as to whether I’m nostalgic for my high school days or am thoroughly relieved that they’re long behind me.
Undoubtedly plaintive is my reflecting back on days wherein aspiration didn’t have to have substantive backing and wherein friendships could be easily maintained simply through a similar class schedule. Worries could be kept confined within the comforting walls of the spectacular now, the most far-reaching of one’s concerns being the making it into a good college. Parties and frantic fast food runs during lunch hour and Friday night football games could be depended upon as factories specializing in their producing of treasured memories.
But sometimes am I hit with random recollections that remind me why I’m plenty glad my adolescence is a thing of the past. Flashes of old name calls, of crises of identity, of crushing self-consciousness, and of brutal emotional susceptibility periodically, albeit randomly, ram their way into my currently content existence. Perhaps I’ll always be grappling with myself and be affected by the unpredictably stinging comments from a peer every once and a while. But never on the grand, hormonally unbalanced scale felt from ninth to twelfth grade.
Much as I wish I could tell the protagonist of Kelly Fremon Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen” that one day her life will ultimately become less of a shit show (even if her life remains a shit show post-graduation) than it has been for the entirety of her teenage years, she’d be pressed to believe me. Fact is is that everything in high school seems so eternal we’d sometimes rather die than face some of its social and relational drawbacks.
Granted, our heroine, Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld), feels too deeply for any aspect of her life to not perpetually seem to be on the verge of collapsing. An outcast with only a single friend, the outgoing Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), to her name, Nadine’s never much known what it’s like to be a part of the “in” crowd, blaming her “old soul” as her excuse for so consistently closing herself off from her peers. (Though it’s more obvious that her hyper-intelligence, paired with the psychological scars left by her father’s recent death, has turned her into a hellion you’d be smarter to get to know than materialistically approach.)
She doesn’t mind living in her small, isolated world — kids her age would “have a seizure” if without their phone or their dumb linguistic codes for longer than a second. She’d favor being either with herself or with Krista than surround herself with fake friends. But her world is suddenly thrown for a loop when Krista and Nadine’s older brother, the handsome and well-liked Darian (an affable Blake Jenner), spontaneously hook up and surprisingly decide that they like each other.
Her very own Joan Collins, Nadine dramatically forces Krista to choose between her and Darian when the prospect of going steady is proposed. To her frustration, Krista, thinking she has a future with the brother Nadine’s always envied for his charisma and his obvious favoring by their damaged mother (Kyra Sedgwick), picks Darian, and from there is Nadine’s life thrown into such a tailspin we’d be sure her every reactionary action were a pale imitation of “Degrassi’s” most histrionic character.
But Craig, making her writing and directing debut with the film, is incapable of drawing a leading character we merely pass aside as a melodramatic bat out of hell. As if a teenager herself, Craig renders every disappointment Nadine faces as another nail in her coffin — everything feels like another step toward the end of the world, just as her protagonist herself would decide. From a vapid outsider’s perspective might Nadine resemble a post-football, post-braces Marcia Brady. But through Craig’s compassion are we provided with a multifaceted heroine whose sorrows are treated with the gravitas of a Shakespearean heavyweight.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is the perfect tragicomedy and the perfect teen movie, equal parts hysterically funny and movingly sad. Some of Nadine’s problems (and Veronica Sawyer-esque one-liners) bring us to unflinching fits of laughter, from her accidental sending of a sexually explicit message to her crush to her every exchange with her favorite teacher, portrayed by a sardonic but eventually superheroically sympathetic Woody Harrelson. But then our hearts break as we watch Nadine desperately looking for a friend following her temporary breakup with Krista, and as, near the end of the film, she tearfully admits to Darian that she’s scared of the idea of living with herself for the rest of her life.
We’ve all felt that same feeling of social invalidity when our friends of choice aren’t around to sit by our side; we’ve all reached that epiphany in which we’ve realized that the world’s big and we’ll at some point have to exist outside of the bubble created by lockers and six periods and cafeteria food and prom. A handful of Nadine’s meltdowns are dramatic at the center, sure; but the majority really and truly are mightily real, and there comes a point in “The Edge of Seventeen” in which we’ve come to understand that, regardless of social status or gender, we all are a little bit like Nadine, mostly able to keep it together in the public eye but steadily at war with ourselves behind every closed door.
As “The Edge of Seventeen’s” whip smart focal point, Steinfeld is magnificent. Following her triumphant breakout in 2010’s “True Grit,” the film that nabbed her an Oscar nomination at the tender age of thirteen, Steinfeld’s career has proven to be a thorny combination of unrewarding parts in forgettable indie features and teases with pop superstardom (through a hit single and through a friendship with Taylor Swift). But the film solidifies her as a force to be reckoned with, a Natalie Portman of the millennial crowd with the kind of star power that’s inevitably going to lead to lasting fame. Her Nadine is funny, selfish, heartfelt, foul, beautiful, and woefully vulnerable. But never for a second do we doubt her ingenuity and her big, if flawed, heart — this is one of the most unfading characters, and one of the greatest performances, of the decade.
Consider Nadine to be less a Cher Horowitz and more a Cady Heron, a teen movie lead that feels less like a teen movie lead and more a one-of-a-kind girl who unwisely listens to her heart more than her head. We love her and we love the movie that gives her a home; “The Edge of Seventeen” is a genre feature to be compared to the finest pieces of John Hughes’s oeuvre and the finest pieces of 2016. If it gets any little gold men come next February, it’ll be lucky. But I suspect you won’t find a movie as emotionally rewarding, or as unforgettably moving, as the mini masterpiece found here.