Sure, teen comedies make stars of their leading ladies and fellas, but what about the authority figures? Eugene Levy’s nameless dad in American Pie is peripheral but memorable as a bumbling guiding force. Tina Fey’s Ms. Norbury in Mean Girls is a motherly but revelatory mess of a teacher. Harry Dean Stanton’s Jack in Pretty in Pink is a sweet shining light in a sea of teen angst. And Kim Darby’s Jenny Meyer is the kooky, generous, chicken soup of a mom in Better Off Dead. Just as horror and action movies live or die by their villains, good teen comedies thrive by how developed their adult characters are, how well they counter all those shook-up hormones. Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut feature, The Edge of Seventeen, cuts sharply when its two fully drawn adults talk a turbulent teen girl off the ledge. It’s everything else that’s … less than.
Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld) talks to herself. A lot. First in voice-over and then in scenes in the car, on a playground, at a yogurt shop, on the floor by the toilet, everywhere, nonstop, talking. She’s a self-absorbed, self-professed awkward outcast dressed in a combo of vintage finds and Forever 21 ensembles. Her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), is a self-assured rainbow of optimism who keeps Nadine afloat, indulging her irrational hatred of Nadine's sporty, popular brother Darien (Blake Jenner).
The siblings’ rivalry is revealed in a voice-over flashback sequence all too similar to the opening of Mean Girls, setting the tone as a whimsical comedy. Little Nadine doesn’t want to get out of the car at school, and her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), tries to force her out before dad (Eric Keenleyside) cools them all down. But the only funny moments that follow are from the supporting characters: the cool, jaded teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), Mona, and a stuttering, incredibly endearing admirer of Nadine’s, Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), whose charming mannerisms more than a little resemble those of Justin Long.
These three are standouts. Harrelson and Sedgwick can up the game of anyone lucky enough to be in their vicinity, and Steinfeld benefits the most from their actor generosity, shining in their presence. When Nadine admits to her mother that she’s sad about losing her friend, Mona rattles off her favorite way to feel better about herself: remembering that all the happy people in the world are deep down just as miserable as she is. And when Nadine tells Mr. Bruner that she’s going to kill herself, he counters with an impromptu, bitingly sarcastic suicide note of his own. Unfortunately, when Nadine is in a scene opposite her teen peers — aside from Erwin — she falls flat.
Krista and Darian are boring. It often feels as if they’re in some virginal episode of One Tree Hill, while Nadine’s excellent scenes with the others are in an adult comedy. The pair’s hookup seems inevitable from the get-go, the dynamics a too-tame version of the teen love triangle in 1999’s satirical Election. But for all the extra minutes spent in scenes with Krista and Darian, the dialogue reveals nothing about their characters, except for how bland they are. “I miss her,” Krista says to Darian as she realizes it’s possible she might be able to keep her and Nadine’s friendship alive, the camera lingering on her. After an hour of listening to Nadine spar, in whip-smart dialogue, with her wine-guzzling working mom and her barbed teacher, more boring words could not have been spoken than the bland declaration of “I miss her” — only one example of many lines from these two that are flatter than cardboard.
Sometimes it seems as if Craig was struggling to find a way to move Nadine through the story. The structure gets wonky when she runs out of ideas, even sending Nadine to the playground and then to the yogurt shop for many minutes to have a kind of epiphany, à la Cher’s moment in Clueless — Amy Heckerling has her heroine strolling by well-timed fountains and getting distracted by designer sales (her passion) as she comes to realize she’s in love with her ex-stepbrother. But, here, there’s still not a lot of revelation, and the only visuals supporting Nadine’s incessant self-talk are her sitting down and texting. That’s realistic, but it’s not very interesting.
Throughout, I kept wondering what Nadine’s passions were, because she seemed to have none, outside of crushing hard on one handsome, moody senior student. She’s not good at anything, and doesn’t seem to try. There’s so much talking but not a lot of doing, which is why those scenes with the adults spark such life — they have jobs and are doing things.
Still, the scenes that work just make me ache for more of them, signaling that if Craig finds her groove, she’ll be a force to reckon with.