Besides his incredible career producing some of the greatest sitcoms in the history of television, James L. Brooks is no slouch as a film director. The man works in awkwardness and self-doubt the way other artists might work in oils or clay, and has movies like Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets to his credit. The Edge of Seventeen would sit comfortably as one of his minor works, except for one thing: he only produced it. The writer/director is newcomer Kelly Fremon Craig, who has clearly learned much from Brooks about how to make a comedy like this work instead of collapsing into a puddle of its own neuroses.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has always felt awkward, but she's always been able to count on her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Even when her father died and her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgewick), began to offload more responsibility on to Nadine and her popular jock brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), Krista was there for her.
And then comes the night that Mona goes out of town. Darian throws a party, while Nadine and Krista grab a bottle of liquor and hide upstairs. Nadine drinks too much, and after she passes out Krista helps Darian clean up. The morning finds Nadine's best friend in bed with her brother, their friendship on the rocks, and her life spiraling out of the bare semblance of control it had the night before.
Without Krista as a moderating influence, Nadine starts acting even more erratically than usual. Her simmering attraction to a local bad-boy (Alexander Calvert) threatens to boil over into some very bad decisions. She wears her welcome thin with her bemused but sympathetic social studies teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). She bumbles the awkward affections of her classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).
Through it all, Steinfeld delivers her best performance since the breakout acclaim of True Grit. Richardson shows off the same talents as a comedic foil that she displayed in last year's The Bronze, and Jenner has the same affable broish demeanor he used in Everybody Wants Some!! earlier this year.
But the real break with most comedies is the one that may have attracted Brooks to the script, if Fremon didn't learn it from him. And that is not to fear real, human discomfort. Not the discomfort of "this man -- or sometimes woman -- is acting like a complete idiot in contravention of all societal norms". Instead it's the panic we all feel when we realize we have no idea what we're doing, followed by the odd relief of realizing that nobody else does either. That's what takes a comedy from a collection of absurd situations and gags and turns it into something that really satisfies.
Rating: 4 out of 5