by Chris Feil
You may have already been reading plentiful superlatives thrown at the new teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen starring Hailee Steinfeld. Perhaps a lot of that love comes from its refreshing lack of condescension or cynicism - Seventeen definitely comes with its share of authenticity. The film is actually a (mostly) good time, thanks to Steinfeld delivering what feels like a second breakthrough after her Oscar-nominated debut in The Coen Brothers' True Grit.
Steinfeld stars as perpetual outsider Nadine, who begins a depressive cycle when her sole friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her "perfect" brother (Blake Jenner). What follows is a series of diversionary mishaps on her path to self destruction, the brunt felt mostly by her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and favored teacher (Woody Harrelson, a cuddlier rehash of his Hunger Games character). By turns witty and touching, the film allows Steinfeld to play a fully believable teenager and all the considerable contradictions and sarcasm without turning Nadine into a precocious cliche.
The actress has already fared better than most youngsters nominated for Oscars, with steady work even if she's mostly played third fiddle to more crucial roles. Here she launches herself into more mature roles and shows herself to be quite a natural comedic actress while revealing layered pain. She makes the sharp turns in Nadine's behavior seamless without ever missing a hilarious beat. In a fair world, she would be a shoo-in for a comedy Golden Globe nomination.
The Edge of Seventeen is sharp in unpretentiousness, keeping it real in unperformative ways. For example, the film doesn't pat itself on the back for Nadine's asian love interest (a positively dreamy and delightful Hayden Szeto) and comes of as more progressive for this normalcy - race is mentioned, but not trivialized. When its contemporaries are using minorities as checked-off boxes, this honesty goes a long way.
But while Nadine's depression is treated with empathy and unreductive exploration of her condition, the film shits the bed by defining her depression as selfish and vindictive at the conclusion. What provides momentary catharsis (and solid delivery from Steinfeld) feels opposed to the entire film before it. Considering the film is aimed at a younger impressionable audience that might be working their way through similar issues, this only comes across as irresponsible.
It's a significant misstep in thematic consistency, but writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig delivers an otherwise very warm and adept debut. Whether or not the film is a new classic, Hailee Steinfeld gives a smart and funny performance you shouldn't miss.