FEMALE trouble

104 min. | R

Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) has issues. A 17-year-old high-school junior, she’s a social outcast with only one best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and that friendship is jeopardized when Krista hooks up with Nadine’s brother. She perpetually clashes with her widowed, high-strung mother (Kyra Sedgwick). She lusts after a hot guy who doesn’t know she exists. She binge-drinks. She tells her disaffected history teacher (Woody Harrelson) that she’s contemplating suicide.

Yep, she has issues. All of them.

The Edge of Seventeen has its own issues, but also has so much going for it. Director-screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig plays with familiar high school movie dynamics in creative ways, and adds to the welcome surge of female coming-of-age stories. But often the film feels like it’s trying to be every kind of high school movie at the same time. It’s a comedy that gets surprisingly serious, and a drama that makes jokes at odd moments.

It’s better at the comedy, even when that means turning Nadine into that movie trope of a smart, tart-tongued, dark-humored, usually unpopular girl. Much of the best material involves her friendship with Erwin (Hayden Szeto), whose awkward attempts to express his crush on her often blow up in his face. Szeto and Steinfeld have a wonderfully offbeat chemistry, and it’s undeniably satisfying seeing an Asian-American man as a romantic lead.

Harrelson also does uniquely appealing things with the “understanding teacher” stock character. He convincingly combines a half-assed approach to his job with the basic decency to help the student who needs a sympathetic ear.

There’s a distinct pleasure in watching Hailee Steinfeld grow as an actor. Her potential was clear, given her Oscar-nominated breakout role in True Grit, but throughout The Edge of Seventeen she expands her range. She’s funny here, biting off Nadine’s bitter dialogue with real flair. She demonstrates a lovely subtlety during a party scene where Krista mingles with the more popular girls. There’s a flicker of a smile as she feels happy for her best friend, before realizing how alone that leaves her.

While those swings of emotion are the teen world in which The Edge of Seventeen lives, it’s hard for a movie to similarly shift in tone. As goofy and fun as the satirical vibe is, Craig also tries to navigate more precarious territory: the death of Nadine’s father and its impact on the family; a dream date that tips toward sexual assault; a heartbreaking bit where Nadine realizes she has nobody to sit with at lunch. All the volatility in Nadine’s world makes it hard to know how to feel about her. Is she genuinely messed-up or over-dramatizing?

The film seems to be on the verge of giving an unexpected focal point in Nadine’s contentious relationship with her brother. It takes too long for Darian to become a character outside of Nadine’s angry point of view. That’s somewhat the point, but also relegates to an afterthought an angle rich with potential: how family ties can make it impossible to lean on your most reliable allies. The attempt to cover too much ground robs The Edge of Seventeen of its chance to cover unique ground.