We’ve gotten used to seeing Hailee Steinfeld portray unusually self-assured girls in True Grit and Begin Again and Pitch Perfect 2, so it’s a bit of a jolt to see her as an awkward loner of a teen in The Edge of Seventeen. This high-school drama isn’t her first leading role, but it is the first one that gives her a chance to cut loose, and she plays the part with such physicality and comic timing and energy that her character’s hormonal urges come spilling out all over the screen. It’s appalling and irresistibly funny, and you can’t look away.
She plays Nadine, a 17-year-old social outcast at her high school in Oregon who basically goes unsupervised, with her father dead and her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) either working or flitting off to go on weekend-long dates with guys who aren’t good for her. Nadine and her handsome jock twin brother Darian (Blake Jenner from Everybody Wants Some!!) are free to hold drunken parties, but it’s after one of those affairs that Nadine finds him sleeping with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend since childhood. Nadine doesn’t take this well.
This is the directing debut for Kelly Fremon Craig, who previously wrote the entirely forgettable 2009 comedy Post Grad. What’s remarkable here is how crushingly right she gets so many of these scenes. Much of this is undoubtedly due to her excellent cast, but Nadine’s conversations with her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) are exquisitely scripted as he counters her sarcasm with his own. Craig also gets the hideous “what do we do now?” air when Nadine backs out of having sex with her boy crush (Alexander Calvert) in his car. Even on those rare occasions when Nadine is not on the screen, as when Darian has to talk his mother down during one of her manic episodes. Note how many different ideas get floated in a comic set piece where Nadine confronts Krista in a restaurant booth, as the aggrieved girl obsessively rips the Velcro on her sneaker (and with each rip Krista mutters, “Sorry”), hurls her shoe at the wall in frustration, mimes performing a sex act on Krista’s dad, and comes up with a flood of rationalizations for her friend’s actions. At one point, one teen teases another by playing “The Dickhead Song,” which you can expect to hear as some snarky teenager’s ringtone in the near future.
The acting is similarly good across the board, whether it’s Richardson holding up valiantly to her Oscar-nominated co-star or Sedgwick curbing her usual tendency to overact or newcomer Hayden Szeto, playing the cute Asian-American guy who sits next to Nadine in history class and being so perfectly poised between cool and uncool that you want to cry, or date him.
Still, no one grabs the spotlight away from Steinfeld. She shows an impeccable sense of timing with her jokes: When she finds out that a classmate has his house to himself, she says, “You need to be robbed so you can re-enact Home Alone.” She’s even better, though, at the physical aspect of the comedy, whether she’s on a toilet reaching for a paper towel because there’s no more tissue or spritzing perfume on her crotch before a date and then realizing that it was the wrong move. A great set piece results when Nadine accidentally sexts a guy at school and gets overtaken by sheer panic that seems to blow her through the streets and hallways as she tries to remedy the situation. Steinfeld always makes her boiling teen angst feel like it’s coming from a real place, which paradoxically makes her performance all the funnier. This is a performance of astonishing skill and point, as well as depth. The entire movie buzzes with her energy.
We still don’t have enough movies about teenage girls facing down problems that ordinary teen girls might see thrown at them (as opposed to, say, saving the world from a vampire plague). Here’s a teen film whose characters are better written than the ones in most movies about adults. Too often, such films don’t get the sort of respect from critics that the grown-up ones do. Well, I’m not making that mistake. The Edge of Seventeen is one of the year’s best movies.