Dir. Kelly Fremon Craig. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick
When Nadine (Steinfeld) is at a particularly low point, she launches herself into her more or less sympathetic history teacher’s classroom and launches into a string of word vomit. The movie wants to play some of it offhandedly, such as Nadine’s offering Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) her mother (Sedgwick) for some sort of unsanctioned blind date. She complains about how confidence wins the day over importance. She tells Mr. Bruner that she’s out of friends, which is true, and then says some things about her the fecklessness of her peers. These three strings are treated a little playfully, but one only has to see the rest of the movie to know that there’s a reason all of them come up. First: Nadine, who is still grieving the loss of her father (Eric Keenleyside), the only person who, in her eyes, never betrayed her. It’s funny that she tries to set up her teacher with her mom, who has certainly been unlucky in love since the death of her husband, but it’s worth noting that Mr. Bruner is a fairly reliable adult male presence in her life, and later in the movie she calls him in a situation where many more fortunate young women would have called their dads. (I don’t necessarily want to go full-bore into this, but the last movie I watched before The Edge of Seventeen was BUtterfield 8, which was released more than five decades earlier and takes a similarly reductionist Freudian approach to why the film’s heroine is screwed up.) It leads to a fairly uncomfortable scene in which we watch Mr. Bruner casually implode all of his professional ethics, and more incredibly, we witness his wife not give a rip about him doing so. Second: Nadine practically leads the whole movie with a dissertation about how, since they were little, she has resented her older brother Darian (Jenner) for being able to skate by on confidence. This is the second time we’ve gotten the business about how confidence (Darian) gets all the attention, when what’s important (Nadine) is shunted aside because confidence “wins every single time.” The third one is the one that fascinates me, though, because listening to it I got a tingle of what I felt when I watched La La Land for the first time.
Nadine excoriates “her generation” in the last bit, using how worthless their interests are as a reason to pretend she’s not interested in them. “They literally have a seizure if you take away their phone for a second,” she says. “They can’t communicate without emojis. They actually think the world wants to know they are—’eating a taco!’ Exclamation point, smiley face…” Mr. Bruner speaks for the first time in a couple minutes after listening to this little screed: “Maybe nobody likes you.” This is why she’s lashing out at emojis, I suppose, but how many sixteen-year-olds who are frustrated that they don’t have any friends are trying to cover up that fact like a cat covers up the mess in its litterbox by hating on…phones? No, there’s supposed to be a grain of truth in this bit, and the movie matches it by being surprising analog. No one says a thing about Snapchat. No one adds anything to their Instagram stories. No one gets on YouTube. There’s texting, and there are multiple phone calls, and the most important moment in the movie about technology is performed when Mona tries to figure out the right text to send to her daughter. In other words, the technology the movie is most comfortable with is the technology that people who are well out of high school grew up with, or feel more comfortable with, and for as much as I can believe in the sincerity of Nadine’s feelings in just about everything, I can’t believe she’s a sixteen-year-old in 2016. (Eighth Grade is a rare movie which understands how “digital natives,” a term that only seriously unhip adults bandy about, go about their lives. Kayla is five or six grades below than Nadine, depending on where their birthdays are, but real-life Nadine and Kayla would probably be as close to one another in technology usage as real-life Cher Horowitz and Cady Heron.) Therein lies the deepest problem with The Edge of Seventeen: why, if the movie is not particularly interested in the way teenagers in 2016 live, is it about teenagers in 2016? I’m sure this movie would work just fine if it were set in some earlier year, à la Lady Bird; it would also work about as well if this were The Edge of Twenty-Seven and Nadine was still living in her mom’s proverbial basement, unable to recover from the trauma of her early teenage years, à la Life Is Sweet.
The immediate consequence is that we would lose three of our better young actors from the cast. Blake Jenner plays Nadine’s cool big brother with aplomb. In Everybody Wants Some!!, he played a similar character. Both Darian and Jake are naturally calm, decent guys. Both have hidden depths under the lanky frame and goofy smile. Jake tells Beverly in the small hours of the morning before classes start that he wrote his admissions essay on a surprisingly optimistic interpretation of the Myth of Sisyphus. Darian has what’s arguably the best moment of The Edge of Seventeen, when, raising his voice only by fractions, he let his self-absorbed little sister have it. She tells him that his life is perfect, that he lives to be the perfect son. He agrees. It’s all an act, Darian says. I love having to be the one who’s the adult in the house because our mom is a wreck, and I love making a decision as important as where I’ll go to college based on how fragile the people at home are. What Nadine has mistaken as “confidence” is what most of us would call “responsibility,” and that’s Jenner’s sweet spot. I don’t know how much longer he’ll be able to pull off this role. He’s already too old to do it much longer (and has always had a man’s body instead of a teenager’s), and maybe more importantly Noah Centineo exists. Jenner doesn’t have a huge range, but twice he’s already proven to be a marvelous fit in this smaller range he has, and hopefully future casting directors and filmmakers will continue to find ways for him to thrive. Steinfeld, who may have already given the performance of her career back in True Grit, is good in a role that would sear far less without her behind it. Few types are more frustrating to watch than people who refuse to help themselves, and Nadine is always that person. Towards the end, she tells the boy she’s interested in that she’s the girl in the movie he made; he lets her dangle a second by telling her that the girl in the movie isn’t her, and Nadine, newly self-aware, says, “Wow, I’m one of those people that thinks everything’s about them.” She is one of those people—and the movie definitely lets her off the hook when it turns the movie is, yes, about her—but Steinfeld manages to make her charming. Erwin (Hayden Szeto, who I have less to say about and is thus guaranteed to become the next Tom Cruise) drags her over to meet a bunch of friends, standing in a circle. This is a triumph of Craig’s blocking and Steinfeld’s acting. The camera points right at Nadine and Erwin; she’s standing awkwardly with her back sort of towards the group. He brings her in, and as the conversation continues without any particular direction, she smiles just at being included. It’s a gorgeous moment because of how well Steinfeld sells it. For the first time, one really gets the sense that there is a teenager and not a woman turning thirty in the character; Steinfeld has not had many opportunities to be that good, that authentic, since True Grit, and one hopes for the best for her as one hopes for the best for Jenner. I don’t think either one is necessarily bound for stardom into the next decade, but they both have the raw material.
Then there’s Haley Lu Richardson, who I have seen in four movies (also Split, Columbus, and Support the Girls). In Split, she’s the scream queen who lets us know that we’re in a horror movie; she fills the rich brat part as easily as we believe that she is in mortal danger. In Support the Girls she is almost unrecognizable at the Hooters knock-off the movie is centered on, ludicrously perky and bubbly and funny. In Columbus she is brilliantly understated in the sort of part that frequently gets played to the hilt; in her hands, the architecture lover who loves her architecturally unique home and mothers her irresponsible mom is absolutely real as opposed to histrionic. In The Edge of Seventeen there is not nearly enough for her to do, and the movie starts to backslide when she’s taken out of the first rank of important characters, which is to say, almost immediately. Krista is a necessary lightening for Nadine, who would have been sucked into her own vortex of self-despair years before without her. Krista and Darian start dating, which Nadine reads as a deep personal betrayal on her best friend’s part and as part of a string of malfeasance on her brother’s. It’s neither—it is only surprising for about eight seconds that two responsible, friendly people might decide they’re right for each other—but it’s the last straw for Nadine, who gives her friend a “him or me” ultimatum and cannot be too surprised when Krista chooses him. Richardson is spot-on throughout. She is as awkward and frumpy as Steinfeld during a drunk two-person fashion show, but a couple scenes later is shy and then ravenously intense with Jenner. Her last scene of consequence takes place while she’s standing at a locker with Steinfeld, mostly getting yelled at but also trying to share a personal triumph with her best friend. She does it all there: she is believably excited, beaming, hurt, confused, offended. No one else brings the energetic likeliness that she does.