'The Edge of Seventeen': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A warm, winning teen-com.

Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick headline the Toronto closing film, a comedy about a teenage girl whose brother starts dating her best friend.

Not that we needed another teen comedy revolving around angsty white millennials, but here's The Edge of Seventeen anyway, and guess what? It's really, really good.

Fast, full-hearted and graced with a beautifully modulated lead turn by Hailee Steinfeld, the movie takes the risk of playing it straight and sincere — and the risk pays off. That doesn't mean this directorial debut from Kelly Fremon Craig, produced by James L. Brooks, isn't sporadically funny (it is) or doesn't sometimes strain to be clever (it does). But The Edge of Seventeen is considerably less arch and gimmick-driven — less edgy, for lack of a better word — than other recent entries in the sub-genre (including decent ones like Easy A). Instead, it coasts on brisk humor and clear-eyed empathy for its endearing, exasperating protagonist, neither brazenly satirizing her rather routine adolescent crises nor drowning them in acoustic-strumming earnestness. Taken on its own modest terms, the movie proves that sometimes all you need is a strong cast, a sturdy script and a director who knows when and how to stay out of the way.

The Edge of Seventeen may not be embraced by John Hughes nostalgists, but Steinfeld's Nadine is a direct descendant of Molly Ringwald's Samantha in Sixteen Candles — as well as of the marginalized heroines played by Winona Ryder in Heathers, Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, Thora Birch in Ghost World and many others. Brimming with insecurities and hostilities, pathologically self-deprecating and, of course, far more appealing than she realizes, Nadine decided long ago that she was an outsider and has been wallowing in self-pity ever since.

After an unpromising first scene in which the high-school junior rushes into the classroom of history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) to announce her impending suicide, the movie flashes back a decade. Little Nadine (Lina Renna) is a sulky and morose child, seething with resentment toward slightly older brother Darian, who's the apple of everyone's eye. Flighty Mom (Kyra Sedgwick) doesn't know what to do with her daughter, but Dad (Eric Keenleyside) is a big softie (though he may be partly responsible for her social difficulties; at one point, he counsels the pint-sized pessimist to stand up to bullies by farting into their backpacks).

Things pick up for Nadine when she meets gentle soul Krista (Ava Grace Cooper) on the school playground. The two are immediately inseparable and remain BFFs as the years go by, through bad skin, worse hair — we get a glimpse of Steinfeld as a 13ish Nadine with an unfortunate Greg Brady 'do — and real tragedy when Nadine's father dies suddenly.

Her friendship with the endlessly patient, positive Krista brightens Nadine's world view a bit, though she's still a handful by the time she hits high school — the kind of kid who corrects her teachers, calls herself an "old soul" and, in a move worthy of Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath on Girls, literally crawls around the house when she's hungover (just to, you know, indulge).

At least she has Krista (now played by the very good Haley Lu Richardson), and the two take refuge from the indignities of teenagedom like lots of girls their age: with giggles and gossip, sloppily homemade cocktails and selfies galore. The turning point comes one night when a tipsy Krista ends up in the ripplingly toned arms of Darian, who, naturally, has grown up to be a golden boy with a Colgate smile and a jawline you could cut a steak with (he's played by Blake Jenner of Everybody Wants Some!).

The two fall hard for each other and begin to date, incurring the wrath of Nadine. You get why she flips out, cutting them both out of her life: Krista is her one and only friend, and her seemingly perfect brother scooping her up doesn't just throw off Nadine's already tenuous equilibrium and mess up the convenient compartmentalization of her life — it also hits her sorest spot. The Edge of Seventeen is perceptive in showing how teenage friendships, in their fusional intensity and daily commitment, are almost like romantic affairs. When they go south, it's painful and messy.

Forced to branch out for the first time, Nadine bonds with Erwin (scene-stealer Hayden Szeto), the effusively awkward charmer who sits next to her in class. He's clearly smitten — Erwin's halting attempts at flirtation make for the movie's most slyly amusing moments — but Nadine's got the hots for the bad boy with the bedroom eyes who works at Petland (Alexander Calvert). Her relationships with both potential suitors are believably handled, as is her deepening connection with Mr. Bruner, whom Harrelson plays with his customary sharp comic timing. The sarcastic banter between student and teacher feels forced at first, but it softens as the story unfolds and Nadine finds herself needing all the allies she can get.

Fremon Craig (whose main credit prior to this was as writer of the poorly received Post Grad) doesn't try anything big or bold visually, and that's fine; she knows how to keep things moving. Mercifully, she also doesn't pander: The kids in The Edge of Seventeen are plugged in and social-media-savvy, but we're not subjected to SMS exchanges floating across the screen or dialogue that sounds feverishly hip or focus-grouped.

The film's strength is how seriously it takes these people and their fragile emotions, even as it tweaks them for gentle laughs and ushers them toward predictable resolutions. And while the characters are all recognizable types, there's some fine shading within the outlines. Sedgwick's Mona, for example, isn't quite as self-absorbed as she looks; the actress has a quietly show-stopping little scene near the end where she struggles to draft just the right text message to her daughter.

In her juiciest role since the Coen brothers' True Grit (her Juliet in 2013's Romeo and Juliet is better forgotten), Steinfeld is alive to Nadine's rapidly swinging moods and shifting allegiances, but also to her essential goodness. That said, it's not always easy to like her. She's quick to hit below the belt ("I hope you get paralyzed," "Your head's too big for your body" and "You're a shitty teacher" are just a few of her greatest hits). But if by the end of The Edge of Seventeen Nadine hasn't miraculously turned into a sweetheart, she's at least learned to hold herself to higher standards and accept defeat with grace. In other words, she's earned our respect — as has the film.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentation)
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Production companies: Gracie Films, STX Entertainment
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto
Writer-director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Producers: James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, Julie Ansell

Executive producers: Brendan Ferguson, Pete Corral, Cathy Schulman, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Jerry Ye, Donald Tang, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson, Oren Aviv
Director of photography: Doug Emmett
Production designer: William Arnold
Editor: Tracey Wadmore-Smith
Costume designer: Carla Hetland
Composer: Atli Orvarsson
Casting: Melissa Kostenbauder

Not rated, 102 minutes