In 2007, Ellen Page set the modern-day standard for smart teenage girl characters when she played the title role in Jason Reitman’s Juno. Now, Hailee Steinfeld has matched that performance in Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen. Juno is still the better film, but Steinfeld’s acting accomplishment is every bit the equal to that of Page. Where Juno was plot driven (Juno is pregnant – will she abort, put it up for adoption, keep it, etc.?), The Edge of Seventeen is about nothing more than teen life. There’s not a situation or plot twist in this picture that isn’t realistic. But adults will enjoy it as much as teens. Craig’s script doesn’t talk down to its audience – instead treating viewers to a very thoughtful, sensible, and contemporary journey through the life and mind of a typical teenager.
Hailee Steinfeld shines
Hailee Steinfeld (who played Mattie in the 2010 version of True Grit) is Nadine, a well-meaning but insecure adolescent, attending the stereotypical suburban high school. While Nadine is anything but shy, she’s not the type who makes friends easily. Her one very close friend is Krista (relative newcomer Haley Lu Richardson), who first hit it off with Nadine clear back in second grade. They’ve been companions ever since, until Krista begins a relationship with Nadine’s older brother Darian (Blake Jenner from “Glee”). Unlike Nadine, Darian is one of the most popular kids in school, and Nadine has always felt like the underappreciated younger sibling.
Left alone without a confidant, Nadine spills her heart out to her history teacher (a subdued Woody Harrelson). We learn that Nadine was always closer to her father than her mother, but he died five years earlier. Nadine’s mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is at her wit’s end with Nadine’s attitude, smart mouth, and constant moping.
Nadine has her eye on a popular older boy who works in the local pet store, but he doesn’t even know she exists. Meanwhile, lanky and socially awkward Erwin (Asian-Canadian actor Hayden Szeto) is interested in Nadine, but she doesn’t share his desire for an extracurricular friendship.
More than standard teen flick
This set-up sounds like the standard teen movie – a modern-day John Hughes story, if you will. But The Edge of Seventeen is so much more. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig breathes enough originality into her screenplay to hold our interest. And Hailee Steinfeld raises the bar for teen actors with one of the best performances this year. I’m guessing she won’t even be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but she should be. She’s that good.
The film itself is on par with James Ponsoldt’s 2013 drama The Spectacular Now, about a high school relationship featuring Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller. There’s no one prominent male counterpart in The Edge of Seventeen, however. Steinfeld carries this picture on her own, and a lesser performance would have relegated it to the vast field of simply “okay” teen dramedies. And I say “dramedies” because Nadine is funny. She’s one of those too-smart-for-her-own-good girls, with a motor-mouth and a gentle heart.
I particularly like how Nadine pulls herself out of her doldrums in the film’s final act. Against every expectation, there is no one revelatory scene in which a friend, parent, or teacher finally reaches the protagonist and turns her life around. Nadine does this herself. That her transformation succeeds is a testament to Craig’s radiant script and Steinfeld’s perceptive and sensitive performance.
The Edge of Seventeen is likely to get lost in the Oscar race this year. Adult moviegoers will have other options. Teens may flock to it over break, but I believe it would have drawn a larger teen audience had it been released in the summer. Having said that, I hope I’m wrong. I’d love to see The Edge of Seventeen draw a consistently strong entourage through the winter season. It deserves it. This is the best teen film at least since The Spectacular Now, and Steinfeld’s achievement is the best by a teen actor since Ellen Page in Juno.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://www.currentnightandday.com/
and he serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/