Movie Review: 'The Edge of Seventeen'
There’s a moment fairly early on in The Edge of Seventeen when Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), angry with her friend, takes off her shoe and throws it at the wall of a burger joint. It’s a strange thing to do, and it’s one of those scenes that bothers me in movies—no one in real life takes off their shoe and throws it at the wall in a burger joint. It’s just a bit too scripted.
But then a funny thing happens. Very quickly, Nadine realizes she’s just thrown her shoe, and she has to go pick it up and put it back on. Because that’s what would happen if you threw your shoe at a wall. And when she gets back to her booth, her friend tells her, “that was a weird thing to do.” How often do we really see the mundane consequences of actions like this in a movie? To its extreme credit, this is the universe The Edge of Seventeen occupies: the edge of reality. Yes, it’s cleverly written, enough so that our precocious teenage protagonist talks in ways no actual 17-year-old would talk, but at the heart of what she’s saying is very real emotion, the kind that nearly every teenager experiences in some way. Real anger, fear, anxiety, grief, and confusion about what exactly is happening at any given time and what to do about it.
This must be billed as a “coming of age” movie, but the changes the characters go through are not massive. Nadine doesn’t “become a woman.” Or even an adult. She just realizes a few things and moves forward a little bit in life. Steinfeld nabbed herself an Oscar nomination for playing the older-than-her-years Mattie Ross in the Coens’ True Grit, and she’s similarly older than her physical age here as Nadine, at least intellectually. She’s the one who’s smarter than everyone around her, knows it, and struggles to relate to people her own age. She spends her time talking to her history teacher (Woody Harrelson, who plays his role in exactly the way it needs to be played), who feigns disinterest in Nadine when it’s clear to us, the audience, that he knows she’s got something the other students don’t.
I say Nadine is beyond her years intellectually, but she’s just where she ought to be emotionally. She relates to Harrelson better than nearly any of her peers, but when he tells her that she’s his favorite student—something that is more than clear to us the entire time—she has trouble believing him. She speaks very frankly about sex (which for a moment is jarring, but think back to high school and you’ll realize that it’s not that surprising), but it becomes clear that she’s not at all prepared for the emotional weight that comes along with it. And none of these are faults. Again, they show that she’s exactly where she ought to be at 17.
This is the great success of The Edge of Seventeen. It understands Nadine, and, more than that, it also understands everyone around her. There are no caricatures. Nadine thinks there are—she sees her brother as Mr. Perfect, who’s always been great at everything and put on a pedestal by their mother—but we see that the weight this puts on him can almost be too much to bear. Kyra Sedgwick (gosh, it’s good to see her) plays Nadine’s mother as someone who struggles to tether herself to stability, often using Nadine’s brother as that crutch. These are real people with real lives, even if they sometimes speak a bit too cleverly to seem real. This last part you’ll just have to get over. Because not only is the movie sharply funny as a result, but if you look just a bit deeper you’ll see the truth in what is being said, and be reminded that everyone—everyone—has the ability to surprise us.