'Edge of Seventeen' review: Hailee Steinfeld's teen movie is surprisingly, bracingly real

Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube
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Some of the ads for Hailee Steinfeld's latest movie, a teen dramedy called The Edge of Seventeen, promise a veritable romp of a comedy. Certainly, there are parts of the movie that are funny, charming and light. It is still, at its core, a comedy, and Steinfeld turns in a delightful performance.

But make no mistake: The Edge of Seventeen is a dark exploration of depression, and what happens when someone living with it hits their absolute nadir. It's a deeply affecting film, one that reflects the authenticity of teenage years in a way that's still too rarely seen in cinema.

The Edge of Seventeen — not to be mistaken with the '90s gay comedy, but certainly a reference to the Stevie Nicks song — stars Steinfeld as Nadine Byrd, a seemingly-just-socially awkward teenager. She's thrust into her worst nightmare when her one and only true friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), starts dating her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). What at first seems like an inconvenient truth quickly morphs into a malignant tumor on Nadine's life. She ends her friendship with Krista, spurns her brother and falls into a deep hole.

She finds some comfort in a new friend, wannabe filmmaker Erwin (Hayden Szeto), but continually pushes him away when he shows even the vaguest romantic interest in her. She has an initially antagonistic, later positive friendship with her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), but even that can't save her from an increasingly toxic home life with mom Mona (Kyra Sedgwick).

Nadine's spiral is relentless; just when you think she's hit rock bottom, she hits a whole new plane of bad decisions and failing to ask for help. At times, it seems like the darkness around her threatens to swallow her (and The Edge of Seventeen, for that matter) whole.

Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in 'The Edge of Seventeen'
Source: 
STX Entertainment

What keeps the film from becoming too bleak is its honesty. The Edge of Seventeen isn't a melodrama; none of what happens to Nadine (or Nadine does to herself) feels unrealistic. She sends a too-frank Facebook massage to a boy — something that happens with humiliating frequency to many people, but isn't the end of the world. For Nadine, it almost is, because she has so little to hold onto that the smallest mistakes feel seismic.

We're in a period where teens are more depressed than ever, and young celebrities are being increasingly vocal about their own experiences with the disorder. That openness is vital; it helps to destigmatize what has been, in the past, something that people felt a need to hide.

Considering that reality makes The Edge of Seventeen all the more resonant. It's not a timeless movie — it's made for this moment, and feels like a Perks of Being a Wallflower for this generation of teens.

The Edge of Seventeen is not a timeless movie — it's made for this moment, and feels like a Perks of Being a Wallflower for this generation of teens.

There are still some hiccups. While Steinfeld is fantastic, and clearly fully understands what director/writer Kelly Fremon Craig is trying to do, the ensemble cast doesn't always feel on the same page. Jenner never quite gets a handle on Darian's motivations; Richardson feels emotionally vacant during what should be major moments. Harrelson and Sedgwick are stellar, but their characters feel somewhat underwritten outside of their relation to Nadine. It's hard to imagine their lives when they're not on screen.

Additionally, and this is a near-industry-wide problem at this point: The Edge of Seventeen doesn't really get how teens communicate. Where is Snapchat? Where is Instagram? Even a teen as aloof as Nadine wouldn't send a Facebook message to a crush. The movie seems to get the experience of being a teenager so well — but its timeliness is diminished a bit by the lack of modern understanding of how its characters would connect.

These are quibbles; The Edge of Seventeen is still a deeply moving movie that speaks strongly to an element of teenage life that isn't portrayed enough on film. In some alternate universe, there's a tighter version of this movie, one that would be an instant classic upon arrival. But the one we have is pretty stellar.

The Edge of Seventeen hits theaters Friday.

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Kevin O'Keeffe

Kevin is the arts editor at Mic, writing about inclusion and representation in pop culture. He is based in New York and can be reached at kevin@mic.com.

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