“Can’t we be seventeen / Is that so hard to do?” — Heathers: The Musical
Seventeen: second-last or last year of high school; late in your hormone-flooded second decade but still stubbornly teenaged; life hurtling by or crawling along or sometimes both on the same day. An age that feels on the edge of something, or not edgy enough. For Winona Ryder’s dweebette-by-association Veronica Sawyer, 17 is when she fell in with bullies, cliques, and much, much worse in Heathers (1988). For Reese Witherspoon’s super-keen Tracy Flick, 17 is when she ran for the highest office in her suburban Omaha school-land in Election (1999). And for Emma Stone’s Olive Penderghast, 17 is when she embraced her falsely-rumoured skankiness, stiching a scarlet letter to her clothes in Easy A (2010).
For Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine, in The Edge of Seventeen, loneliness is her not-so-silent killer. After losing her dad, she relied even more on best friend Krista as her brother Darian remained Mr. Popularity and her mom (Kyra Sedgwick) frayed apart. Now 17, Nadine feels appalled and betrayed when Krista starts seeing Darian; friendless, she starts over-talking and over-sharing her worries with her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), exposing her craven desires to bad-boy Nick Mossman, or fumbling between just hanging out and a serious relationship with Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto).
For all its wound-up, worked-up protagonist’s garrulousness, Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut is quietly assured. Covering just a few days that only feel like a “raging dumpster fire” consuming Nadine, it’s rife with small moments: Nadine realizing Mr. Bruner’s not merely a teacher; a cringing back-seat push-and-pull between wanting-a-connection and sexual availability. Two moments wryly rework Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret; there are too-true, sharp scenes of this young woman contemplating her shaky self-image: “Why am I so grotesque? … I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.” And, despite Nadine’s solipsism, others’ struggles and pain are revealed—adults can lash out or offer strangely confessional moments. The comedy here’s double-knot-laced with self-awareness.
The image-metaphors for the stifling awkwardness, unnaturalness, and near-childishness of teen relationships, late-adolescence, and school life keep coming: a ferris wheel, squeezing couples too close together and sending them in circles; Nadine sitting on a curvy slide at a playground before spewing out her feelings in a text; fish swimming around and around in aquariums in a pet store. And history class can seem especially irrelevant when you’re devastated by the dissolution of your only true friendship in the horrible, gaping present.
A flashback to l’il Nadine first meeting Krista is a bit long and cutesy, the ending’s neat, and it’s not possible to forget that Steinfeld’s a Hollywood star merely playing at someone younger and gawkier. But, still, The Edge of Seventeen, reformulating its film-famous age as a series of hopeful little crushes and small crushing disappointments, exploring one young woman’s still-throbbing grief and desperate yearning to not feel so goddamn alone, skirts the line between quite-good and near-great.