If I see another movie that starts near the end of the story and then flashes back to the very beginning, I may have to kill myself. Curiously enough, that's exactly what an unhappy teenage misfit named Nadine threatens to do in the opening scenes of "The Edge of Seventeen."
Crying out for help in a genuinely tragic blue jacket, she unleashes an angst-ridden monologue about the transcendent awfulness of her life, shortly before hitting the rewind button and filling us in on how she got to this very dark (and very funny) place.
Happily, by the time you've witnessed that chain of events firsthand, you'll likely have been thoroughly won over by Nadine, and by the unexpectedly winning new movie in which she finds herself. Written and directed by the gifted first-timer Kelly Fremon Craig, and graced by a superb star turn from Hailee Steinfeld, "The Edge of Seventeen" is the rare coming-of-age picture that feels less like a retread than a renewal. It's a disarmingly smart, funny and thoughtful piece of work, from end to beginning to end.
The comic beats are largely familiar — there are drunken high jinks, accidental hook-ups and no shortage of hurt feelings — but the movie plays out in a strikingly intimate emotional register. In the venerable teen-movie tradition of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe (and in the warm comic spirit of James L. Brooks, who produced the film), Fremon Craig sees her heroine's inner life not as grist for punchlines and gross-out shenanigans but instead as something to be treated with warmth, sensitivity and nary a trace of condescension.
The story can be summed up in a few sentences. A sharp-witted chronic misfit now in her junior year at her suburban high school, 17-year-old Nadine (Steinfeld) is thrown for a loop when her best (and only) friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), begins dating her hunky, overachieving older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner, "Everybody Wants Some!!"). Nadine has always resented Darian for his favored-child status with their mother (Kyra Sedgwick), a feeling that has only intensified since the sudden death of their father (Eric Keenleyside) a few years earlier.
Having cut Krista out of her life, Nadine begins testing new relational waters — indulging her fantasies of Nick (Alexander Calvert), the dreamboat who works at Petland, and striking up a friendship with her adorably awkward classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), whose feelings for her couldn't be more on the surface. (This charming subplot also offers a sly cultural corrective to "Sixteen Candles"; if Steinfeld is the movie's Molly Ringwald, then Erwin is pretty much the anti-Long Duk Dong.)
Naturally, Nadine finds a reliable mentor figure in her history teacher, though it's safe to say no actor has ever put quite the dyspeptic spin on this cliché that Woody Harrelson manages here. Their exceedingly dry back-and-forth ("You need to watch out for run-on sentences," he notes after reading one of her more ill-advised Facebook posts) is one of the movie's most consistent pleasures.
Nadine's frequent quips have a wonderfully unfiltered sexual candor, but even her snarkiest lines remain within the realm of the plausible. Its verbal style informed by numerous interviews that Fremon Craig conducted with teenagers nationwide, "The Edge of Seventeen" never descends into a "Juno"-esque quirkfest. Nor does it much resemble some of the more high school-centric teen comedies of the last several years, such as "Mean Girls" and "Easy A," in part because Nadine so deliberately limits her interactions to those within a very small circle.
Steinfeld, giving her most fully realized performance since her Oscar-nominated work in the Coen brothers' "True Grit" (2010), manages the tricky feat of seeming both caustic and luminous, often in the same scene. It isn't always easy to believe that a girl of her natural spark and charisma would have trouble making friends, but when Nadine expresses the self-loathing she's wrestled with for years ("I had the worst thought: I've got to spend the rest of my life with myself," she says early on), something in the pitch of Steinfeld's voice makes it impossible not to believe her.
Conventionally but effectively filmed, with a nicely mood-setting soundtrack (though absent the Stevie Nicks song of the title), "The Edge of Seventeen" gently and patiently readjusts Nadine's low opinion of herself — and, just as important, of the friends and family in her midst. Fremon Craig sees her characters whole; she extends grace and understanding in every direction and deftly spins the farcical third-act complications into a series of small but significant emotional breakthroughs. (Sedgwick is especially good in the role of Nadine's frustrated, rudderless mother.)
It's hard to imagine anyone who has ever been caught up in cycles of dysfunctional family behavior coming out of "The Edge of Seventeen" entirely unaffected. Watching the final scenes through misty eyes, I found my own earlier, mock-suicidal desperation quickly evaporating. The end can wait — certainly until after Fremon Craig directs her next movie.
'The Edge of Seventeen'
Rating: R, for sexual content, language and some drinking — all involving teens
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In general release