A welcome return to high school in ‘The Edge of Seventeen’

Updated Nov 17, 2016

The feel of a well-worn pair of Converse sneakers. The smell of Noxema. The sight of a crush that makes your stomach flip.

“The Edge of Seventeen,” a coming-of-age film written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, taps into all of the essential and many of the cringe-worthy moments that pepper the high school experience. But this time, as we watch Lakewood High junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) stumble through the aches and pains of growing up, we’re gifted with a softer filter that blurs the previously harsh lines of the experience into something softer, more tolerable and oh-so relatable.

Nadine has always felt like an outcast, especially compared to her golden-boy big brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), and her emotionally distant mother (Kyra Sedgwick). But at least she can count on two things: her best friend since second grade, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and her Billy Joel-loving, fart-joke-telling and completely understanding dad (Eric Keenleyside). But then her dad dies suddenly (while the two are on cheeseburger run, no less) and Krista and Darian start dating and life turns upside down.

After she disowns Krista, her only real friend, for dating her brother, Nadine is forced to navigate the choppy high school waters for the first time completely on her on own.

“Ever since we were little I would get this feeling that I’m floating outside of my body and I hate what I see,” says the ever-melancholy Nadine. “I don’t know how to change it. And I’m scared that feeling is never gonna go away.”

Lonely and bored, Nadine decides to focus her attention on her longtime unattainable crush, the careless, self-absorbed Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert). “You go to Lakewood, right?” she says after tracking him down at his job at Petland. “Sometimes,” he replies coolly. Then, with Spandau Ballet playing in the background, he tosses her a compliment: “I like your shoes.” Later, we cringe as she sends him a hasty, suggestive text. We cringe even more when he picks her up in his Mercury Marquis. And we breathe a sigh of relief when she realizes, before it’s too late, that even loneliness is better than Nick Mossman.

Over time, Nadine does allow herself to confide in a couple of people. First, there’s her who’s-on-first relationship with her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), the only adult in her life who can bear the brunt of her emotional outbursts, call her out on her flaws and still spot her cash for a frozen yogurt. Watching their relationship develop is one of the highlights of the movie, and Harrelson is perfectly cast for a role that transitions from irreverent authority figure to surrogate dad.

The other standout performance in the movie comes from Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), a Lakewood High classmate with a crush on Nadine. We follow as he shuffles through awkward conversation topics, and we feel for him when Nadine eventually plants him solidly in the friend zone, deeming him pathetic-adorable, “like I want to carry him around in a Baby Bjorn.” Eventually, though, he’s also the only one who can deliver the words Nadine has yearned so desperately to hear: “I think you’re perfectly fine. Seriously.”

Still, “The Edge of Seventeen” could have been just another high school dramedy if not for Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 for her role in “True Grit” and manages to keep us consistently interested in and concerned about Nadine.

Steinfeld incorporates a balance of self-indulgence, self-deprecation and self-loathing that makes her character raw, real and relatable — even when we don’t like what she’s doing, we’re still rooting for her. In the same way you care about other unforgettable lead characters in movies like “Ten Things I Hate About You” and “Garden State,” you care about Nadine.

“The Edge of Seventeen” is a coming-of-age story that feels fresh and timeless because it encapsulates an experience — with its unattainable crushes and cool shoes and awkward silences — that is timeless.