An Oscar nominee for her performance in the Coen Brothers' 2010 version of True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld gives her most complex and satisfying performance yet as Nadine, the central subject of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig's entertaining and emotionally honest The Edge of Seventeen. While it's unlikely that Steinfeld will see her fortunes live up to those faint whispers of an Oscar nomination for her performance here, the truth is that's more a reflection of the film's structural issues and the inherent challenge present in selling a teen flick, even a very good one, to an Academy that seems to have a very narrow picture of what constitutes an Oscar worthy performance or film.
If you grew up on John Hughes films, as I did, The Edge of Seventeen exists somewhere between those Hughes films and recent gems like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Nadine is a far more broad character than was typically created by Hughes, who had as one of his major flaws a tendency to develop characters with broad stereotypes and what would now be considered unacceptable cultural identifiers.
I mean, seriously. Long Duk Dong anyone?
Nadine is different. Both stunningly intelligent and socially inept, Nadine survives in a household with a frazzled single mom, played with much more depth than we usually get from this type of mom by Kyra Sedgwick, and brother Darian, played by Everybody Wants Some's!! Blake Jennifer, who is, it would seem, everything that Nadine is not. Nadine's saving grace is her lifelong friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson, television's Recovery Road) and a humorously hostile mentoring relationship of sorts that she maintains with Mr. Bruner, played with understated warmth by Woody Harrelson.
While Nadine is pegged to be the recipient of our sympathies here, she's far from a sympathetic figure thanks to Craig's refreshingly honest and balanced script that realizes that someone who has been fairly miserable her entire life may, in fact, be more than a little self-absorbed.
The beauty of Steinfeld's performance is that she plays the entire spectrum beautifully, believably leaning into the film's occasional dips into melancholy while also making us genuinely ache for this young woman who feels alone even if she isn't exactly alone.
The Edge of Seventeen benefits from a terrific ensemble cast that works together to bring Craig's script to life in some pretty special ways. Sedgwick is a gem as Nadine's frazzled mom, trying to hang on to a relationship with her daughter that was already strained even before her husband and Nadine's father passed away. Blake Jenner adds both tremendous charm and a layer of sensitivity to his portrayal of Darian, an added depth that adds substance when an unexpected hook-up comes along. As the best friend whose attention becomes divided, Haley Lu Richardson is another one of the film's true discoveries as she embodies Krista with such an earnest spirit that you just can't help but love her.
While Hughes always seemed to paint characters with broad strokes, kudos must be given to Craig for the brilliant ways in which she allowed her characters to truly transcend our expectations. This is especially true with Erwin (Hayden Szeto, Chop Shop), the film's obligatory good guy, an artistic nerdish type who is inherently decent and whose role, far beyond the Asian stereotypes Hughes would toss off, blossoms as the story unfolds. Szeto is a true find here, possessing a believable warmth and rich humanity that makes you absolutely love the guy.
With this, her first feature film, Craig crafts a film that on occasion gives a tip o' the hat to its 80's predecessors without making that tip o' the hat a sly wink. She also greatly adds upon those predecessors, crafting a film made for contemporary society and recognizing that things have changed a whole heck of a lot in the past 30-40 years. While The Edge of Seventeen occasionally suffers from structural predictability and too much adherence to the teen flick formula, it's also a case of a Craig's script being so deeply authentic and the cast being so incredibly talented that unless you're looking for it you're not likely to notice it.
The Oscar buzz continues for Steinfeld and she is, in fact, nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, though I'd still be immensely surprised if that translates to a more limited Oscar nomination. Regardless, Steinfeld here proves that the 2010 Oscar nomination was no fluke and with her pop music career also taking off she's ultimately serving notice that she's an artistic forth to be reckoned with at the remarkably young age of 20.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic