Today The Edge of Seventeen won the Best First Film Award from the New York Film Critics Circle. A great teen movie is timeless. The slang may change, fashions come and go, but the great teen movies never expire. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Clueless, Rebel Without a Cause—these movies still speak to us decades later. They speak to us as teens in our own secret language, and again as adults, reminding us of experiences and feelings that are universal. But like so many other character-driven genres, the teen movie’s influence has waned, and has largely been supplanted by YA adaptations—they’re not the same thing—making the true teen movie a rare bird. But we got one this year with The Edge of Seventeen, and it’s a classic, as good as any John Hughes or mid-century Method angst-fest.
Hailee Steinfeld came onto the scene in 2010’s True Grit as the precocious, demanding Mattie Ross, and six years later she stars in Seventeen as the precocious, demanding Nadine, but the performances could not be more different. Steinfeld was already an accomplished young actress with formidable talent, but even as a known quantity, she is ASTOUNDING as Nadine. It’s a seamless performance, with no cracks or weaknesses or undeveloped attributes. There is no Hailee here. There is only Nadine.
And Nadine is a marvel. Without laying on any details about her grades—or even showing her studying—it’s clear Nadine is a bright kid. Too bright, really, with the kind of quicksilver mind that can’t shut down or even slow down enough for her mouth to catch up and prevent her from sticking her foot all the way inside it. She’s painfully awkward and it’s not cute or quirky. Nadine is truly socially maladjusted and even when she wants to, she cannot find the right keys to access acceptable high school decorum. She has PROBLEMS and she knows it but is at a loss as to how to handle them.
Her problems stem from an innate awkwardness that has always been a part of her, as well as from the death of her father several years prior, an incredibly traumatic event for Nadine that also removed the one person in her family who understood how to communicate with her. Compounding this is the more mundane issue of her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!!), a handsome, popular guy. As the younger sister of a handsome, popular guy myself, I recognize the look on Nadine’s face every time Darian shows up and sucks up all the air in the room, leaving no attention left for Nadine. He’s her brother, she loves him, but she also hates him.
Which makes it all the more painful when her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson, still a super fun screen presence), starts dating Darian. It’s a betrayal, and their friendship takes a mortal blow in a painful scene as good as any friend break-up ever depicted. From here, Nadine spirals, having lost her one tether to social norms. She starts hanging out with a teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, TERRIFIC), and bounces between two boys, the fresh-from-juvie Nick (Alexander Calvert, Arrow), and equally awkward but less troubled classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto, upholding the tradition of way-too-old actors playing teens—he was THIRTY when the movie was made).
And let’s hear it for Erwin, handsome and fresh-faced, a real boy next door type, who reveals a six pack when he dives in the pool. He’s smart and funny and endearingly sweet about his obvious crush on Nadine, and sexy when he teases her. And he’s rich, with absentee parents—a theme in Seventeen is that no one’s life is perfect regardless of appearances—and a talented illustrator. Erwin has a lot going on. He’s also Asian, making him that rare cinematic unicorn—an Asian romantic leading man. He feels like a calculated response to Long Duk Dong, but still totally works as an independent character. Erwin is wonderful.
Written by Kelly Fremon Craig—also making her feature film directorial debut—Seventeen has brilliant dialogue everyone clearly relishes. Steinfeld and Harrelson, especially, have great chemistry together and the way Nadine and Mr. Bruner talk to one another is scathingly funny and, when it counts, exactly the right tone of caring but not coddling that Nadine needs. People say HURTFUL words in Seventeen, but as Nadine figures out her identity without Krista by her side, the tender moments are calibrated just right—Darian and Nadine hug, but have to shake off the yuck afterwards.
Every emotional beat is tangible in its authenticity and precise in its intent, a combination of stellar writing and acting. There’s no magic solution to these problems—Nadine and Krista will probably never be as close as they were. But there is optimism that life improves—that people improve—and The Edge of Seventeen says the one thing every kid needs to hear at one time or another: It does get better. And that message comes with a teen heroine worthy of the ranks of Claire and Allison and Cher. Nadine is forever.