'The Edge of Seventeen' is the grouchy teen comedy we need now
It's about a high schooler (Hailee Steinfeld) who wants to get laid and is mad at her bestie. But her misery and anger are cathartic.
‘The Edge of Seventeen’
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson
4 (out of 5) Globes
Now might not sound like a great time for a movie about a more-or-less privileged teenager fuming over nonsense teenage problems. But at least in temperament, Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine is our spirit animal. The hero, of sorts, of “The Edge of Seventeen” is a titanic depresso, detached and scornful of the suburban merriment all around her. The only predicaments she will get into involve a) attempting to shed her virginity and b) being nonplussed, to put it mildly, when her bestie (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her dreaded older brother (Blake Jenner). Still, ignore that her disdain is only reserved for the tiny bubble of her home and high school; she’s the angry, unhappy, whip-smart loner we need right now.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is the too rare grouchy high school comedy, the kind where the token inspirational teacher is played by Woody Harrelson. As Mr. Brumer, the school’s long defeated English teacher, Harrelson ranks up there with such unlikely and welcome teen movie supporting players as Harry Dean Stanton in “Pretty in Pink” and the tag team of Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci in “Easy A.” Mr. Brumer is Nadine’s barely-there rock — the fellow sadsack who will sit there and silently sit through her epic complaint jags, piping up only to offer deflating non-advice or a withering quip. He’s concerned, and then only mildly, for her mental health, not so much that an already antisocial freak has ghosted her childhood friend because she chose the actual wrong boy to date.
Nadine’s problems are silly, and the film knows it. But it understands it. Viewed right now, at this time in history, the things that drive her mad seem touchingly minor — feelings that will embarrass her later on, when she discovers there’s bigger matters worth worrying about. That said, it’s not just about nostalgia for a simpler age, when volcanic emotions are all we’ve got. Though he only produced it, “Seventeen” is very much in keeping with the work of James L. Brooks, whose films (best of all “Broadcast News”) and shows (best of all “The Simpsons”) traffic in characters who aren’t always likeable, who use razor-sharp, sometimes loopy wit to deal with pain, who have arcs that seem traditional but are powerfully messy and raw. They’re also always funny, perched somewhere between an unflinchingly honest drama and a live-action cartoon, sometimes veering one way, sometimes another.
And so Nadine is a hot mess throughout, whether it’s picking fights with her harried mom (Kyra Sedgwick), firing off an ill-advised knockoff-Facebook message to her terrible crush or stewing in her own misery with lines like “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself.” (Sorry to make this a parenthetical, but Steinfeld is a god here — as high-strung as her "True Grit" hero was contained.) She learns lessons, but they tend to be about accepting that life is terrible, that adults haven’t figured life out either, that even her douchey-seeming brother might have it rougher than her. There’s a happy ending, but it involves something that’s actually helpful, even right now: lower your expectations, accept that you’re insignificant and just try to eke by. Right now, a week after the election, it seems like it could be the best teen movie ever.