‘Edge of Seventeen’ Review: Woody Harrelson Steals Angsty High School Comedy

Toronto 2016: Kelly Fremon Craig’s coming-of-age film stars Hailee Steinfeld, but a laconic Harrelson is its clear MVP

Edge of Seventeen
Courtesy of TIFF

The movie is about a teenage girl, but it’s the 55-year-old guy who steals “The Edge of Seventeen,” tucks it under his arm and walks away with it.

And all without breaking a sweat.

Woody Harrelson isn’t the only reason to see Kelly Fremon Craig’s coming-of-age film, which closed the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday night with back-to-back screenings at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall. But he’s probably the best reason — and he’s badly needed to keep the film on track until its lead character turns into the kind of person we can stand to be around.

“The Edge of Seventeen” stars Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine, a whip-smart, cynical and entirely self-absorbed high school junior who sees every setback as a cataclysm and every peer as an inferior.

Naturally, she’s socially inept, which in high school means she’s perpetually on the verge of humiliation. Nadine is sharp and funny enough to be an amusing tour guide through the perils of adolescence for a while, and it’s good that writer-director Craig doesn’t let her off the hook. We can’t help but see the world through Nadine’s eyes, but after a while we know that vision is pretty clouded.

It feels fresh because Nadine is so finely drawn and so distinctive. But as we watch our heroine grow more and more melodramatic and insufferable, what started out as funny becomes annoying. You may find yourself responding to each new crisis in Nadine’s life by desperately wishing that she could just get over herself.

(By the way, Nadine is far from the only TIFF character you might think about that way: Bryan Cranston‘s AWOL husband in Robin Swicord’s “Wakefield” is a leading man whose self-absorption is so off-putting that only an actor of Cranston’s considerable charm can make him tolerable.)

But whenever our patience with Nadine wears thin, Woody comes to the rescue. Harrelson plays Mr. Bruner, a high school teacher and the only person Nadine turns to for advice, though she rarely listens to him because he also tells her to get over herself. Hovering somewhere between laconic and comatose, Harrelson seems to be delivering a delicious comic performance in his sleep; he’s a voice of wisdom marooned in a crummy high school classroom, a Yoda for teens way too wrapped up in their own melodramas to figure out he knows what he’s talking about.

While Blake Jenner (“Everybody Wants Some!!”) is terrific as Nadine’s all-too-perfect brother, who betrays her horribly by dating her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson), the scenes between Steinfeld and Harrelson are the heart of the movie. They are crackling comic gems delivered with such low energy (on Harrelson’s part, at least) that they become even funnier.

By the end, a bit of self-awareness begins to creep into Nadine’s world, and the film turns genuinely touching — first in a revelatory scene with Harrelson, later in encounters with her brother and friend. “The Edge of Seventeen” is not on the level of the last great teen-angst epic, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” but you can see why James L. Brooks was attracted to Craig’s comic voice, and her take on growing up.

It’s just a good thing that while the teenager struggles to come of age, the guy who got there a long time ago is hanging around, too.