**** (out of five)
There’s a sub-genre of the high-school flick, and it’s the female teen in high-school flick, of which there are three acknowledged classics, Clueless (1995), Mean Girls (2004) and Juno (2007); other good ones include Easy A (2010), Bring It On (2000) and, of course, Pretty in Pink (1986). Each of these films combined comedy and pathos, and each featured a standout performance by its leading actress, each of whom either went on to become huge stars (Easy A’s Emma Stone will probably win the Best Actress Oscar next month for La La Land) or chose not to.
The Edge of Seventeen can hold its head very high in this exalted company, and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Begin Again) gives a performance that should allow her the kind of career promised to Lindsay Lohan and Ellen Page (indeed, Ellen Page’s performance in Juno is kind of a touchstone for Steinfeld’s here). A total home run as a first feature for writer/director/producer Kelly Fremon Craig, it’s consistently funny, moving and emotionally honest.
Nadine is 17; her dad died when she was 13 and there are plenty of leftover emotional scars. Things are okay because she’s got a loyal bestie and a calm and dependable older brother, but when those two hook up, she over-reacts and spins out of control.
Closer in tone to Easy A and Juno than the others – it’s rooted in realism, avoids cheap laughs and cheap sentiment, and isn’t flashy with its use of music, colour or costume – The Edge of Seventeen starts strongly and then keeps getting better and better, drawing you in deeper as you get to know Nadine more intimately. Steinfeld has excellent support from Kyra Sedgwick as mom, Blake Jenner as bro, and, most significantly, Woody Harrelson as one of Nadine’s teachers. Harrelson is superb; his performance feels effortless, but that’s only because he’s so damned good at this sort of character – a damaged charmer with compassion and integrity.
The plot isn’t revolutionary; in fact, nothing here is. You don’t see a movie like this hoping it will re-invent the wheel. It’s all about the execution and the performances, and The Edge of Seventeen excels with both. I saw it with a cinema full of, I suppose, its essential demographic, being teenage girls, and they loved it, laughing throughout and fully engaged. I was right there with them.