“The Edge of Seventeen” is a curiously beguiling movie about a critical period in one young person’s journey out of childhood into adult maturity.
It opens with 16-year-old Nadine flouncing into her high school history teacher’s empty classroom and announcing that she plans to kill herself. The teacher, a veteran observer of the adolescent experience, does not call an ambulance but listens and then responds in kind.
From there we learn Nadine’s litany of woe: She has been the odd kid out since early childhood. Her biggest supporter, her father, died suddenly four years earlier. Her mother’s behavior ranges from distracted to wacky. Her only friend has abandoned her and become romantically attached to Nadine’s older brother, a Mr. Perfect whom she resents for his apparently charmed life.
Nadine is smart enough to put her anger and frustrations into words. Sometimes these complaints are humorous, and sometimes they are obnoxious. In this, she has much in common with other teenagers.
(The film has been recommended for parents seeking to understand their adolescent children. Unfortunately, it is rated R for content deemed inappropriate for actual persons under the age of 17, who might gain some perspective from the story. FWIW, the movie does not congratulate Nadine for any of her immature behavior.)
The traditional coming-of-age movie is the story of gradual character development shaped by the example of principled adults. This is not that kind of film.
Nadine crashes and burns again and again. The only stable adult in her life seems to be her history teacher, played well by Woody Harrelson, to whom she returns to report each fresh outrage. His steadiness and sarcasm don’t lessen her pain, but perhaps suggest that none of her mistakes is fatal and that at least someone is there to listen.
People mature at their own paces, and Nadine comes through finally. Like many teenagers, she takes a while to understand that other people have feelings too. By the end, you find yourself liking her and believing that she will grow into a successful,happy adult.
The script and direction, by relative newbie Kelly Fremon Craig, are fresh, realistic and economical — not overly dramatic and without ginned-up, artificial action. Actress Hailee Steinfeld lets us see Nadine as a girl with promise, even as she trips herself up on a regular basis.
All in all, a nice piece of work.
Note: I am not usually a fan of the use of texting in film plots, but the practice is employed to good effect in this movie.