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Review: Student angst charms in quirky ‘Seventeen’

  • STX Films

    Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson play a student and counselor in “The Edge of Seventeen.”

“The Edge of Seventeen”

***

(R, 1:24)

When’s the last time you saw a truly fresh talent on screen? Someone so charismatic that you couldn’t wait to find out who they are, what they’ve done before and why you’ve never noticed? That’s what it feels like to watch Hayden Szeto as the sweetly dorky love interest to Hailee Steinfeld’s lead in “The Edge of Seventeen,” a charmingly sardonic coming-of-age story from promising writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig in her feature debut.

There are other reasons to go see “The Edge of Seventeen,” of course. Szeto is just one of them. He actually has a fairly small part, but it’s the kind of introduction to a should-be star that’s not to be missed. Also, that the small love interest role had such an impact is a testament to the care with which this movie was put together. From the first shot of a grungy maroon sedan, door splattered with mud, screeching to a halt outside of a high school where our heroine Nadine (Steinfeld) informs her teacher (a terrific Woody Harrelson) that she plans to kill herself, it’s clear that this is no sanitized high school nostalgia trip.

Nadine is a sarcastic, often inappropriate and perpetually aggrieved young woman who exists on the peripheries of the high school ecosystem. It’s been this way since childhood, and hasn’t been helped by the fact that her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is at the top of the social ladder. He’s handsome and popular and good at sports, and also a decent, kind person who seems to have his head on straight.

But he’s the bane of Nadine’s existence, and just a consistent reminder of how alienated she is. It certainly doesn’t help when her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), takes up with her brother, but that moment does send her into a story-propelling spiral of action and self-discovery.

There is the perpetual problem in the Hollywood treatment of high school outcast stories whereby we’re asked to believe that beautiful movie stars are capable of being invisible, but “The Edge of Seventeen” even does a reasonable job making us buy into Nadine’s apartness. She had some unfortunate skin and haircuts when she was younger and was never comfortable with kids her own age. She can throw down with her mom, her brother, her teacher and her friend, but at a party, she slinks out to the porch alone.

Steinfeld carries the movie effortlessly, walking that fine line of making a somewhat bratty, entitled and self-absorbed character endearing, funny and even empathetic. Her comedic timing is first-rate.

Sure, some of it is cliche, and Nadine’s troubled relationship with her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is underdrawn. But “The Edge of Seventeen” also has enough good that it might just become a new classic in the high school comedy genre.

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