Two high school girls are best friends until one dates the other’s older brother, who is totally his sister’s nemesis.
In Kelly Fremon Craig’s radiantly funny and perceptive debut, The Edge of Seventeen, nobody gets off the hook, least of all the movie’s heroine, Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine. There’s misbehavior and misunderstanding everywhere, and often Nadine, in particular, is the one you want to shake. That doesn’t make her unsympathetic: It merely makes her believable. Nadine, crabby, impatient and judgmental, has one friend and one friend only, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), a smart, emotionally generous young woman who’s clearly more grounded than she is. The two have been friends since childhood, after bonding while sharing joint custody of a caterpillar: The poor creature meets an ignoble end, but the friendship sticks. Nadine is perpetually angry at her harried mother (Kyra Sedgwick), and at her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner, of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!), a star-athlete type who’s just too perfect. But mostly, she’s angry at an absence: Her father, whom she adored, died when she was an adolescent. She has never gotten over it—to the degree that these events can ever be gotten over—and she uses her anger as both shield and weapon, a defense against the world and an ever-ready excuse to lash out at it.
Writer-director Craig doesn’t flinch from the prickliness of Nadine’s character: We see how cavalierly Nadine treats the supersmart, supersweet classmate, Hayden Szeto’s Erwin, who develops a crush on her. Only the teacher in whom she confides, Mr. Bruner (played by a wonderfully deadpan Woody Harrelson), is able to jolt her out of her self-absorption—and that’s mostly because he pretty much ignores her, at least at first. Nadine is awful—but the more terrible her behavior, the more you feel for her, thanks largely to Steinfeld’s performance: She’s a thundercloud stomping around in sneakers, and still, she’s almost incandescent with promise. Even if you can’t excuse her behavior, you can still see glimmers of the person she’s on her way to becoming.