Film

‘The Edge Of Seventeen’ Review: Are We Really Any Better Than Our Teenage Selves?

This is an amazing teen film... but it might make you feel terrible too.

Let me first say this: The Edge of Seventeen is brilliant, and it also ruined my day. In its teenage protagonist, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), I recognised my own worst tendencies, which made me realise a terrible (but possibly also awesome) thing: growing up is never over.

Screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut works with the well-worn tropes of the coming-of-age dramedy: school, friendships, family tensions, social media blunders and experimentation with alcohol and sex. But its main achievement is to affectionately synthesise competing perspectives on youth. Fremon Craig understands how excruciating, alienating and helpless being a teenager feels, yet is also clear-eyed about how selfish and cruel teenagers can be.

And while its tone is closer to the earnestness of John Hughes’ 1980s films than the bawdy zingers and pratfalls of Mean Girls or The To Do List, The Edge of Seventeen finds humour in a specifically feminine flavour of rage, yearning and humiliation. Thanks to Fremon Craig’s incisive script and Steinfeld’s immensely natural, charismatic performance, the film gets what it’s like to be a girl. To me it feels both intensely familiar and anti-nostalgic.

It Doesn’t ‘Get’ Better

Two common cultural narratives about adolescence are that it comprises ‘the best years of your life’ and ‘it gets better’. These intertwine and compete, depending on whether you’re living through it or looking back on it. But either way, we view coming of age as something that happens to people: they endure traumatic baptisms of fire and/or initiations into adult wisdom; and they cavort in a romantic, experimental period of being adorable free spirits.

But Nadine has always felt that life happens to everyone except her. Things for her only ‘get’ worse and worse. She’s never had the social confidence of her hot, sporty elder brother Darian (Blake Jenner), who’s always been her mum Mona’s (Kyra Sedgwick) favourite child. While Nadine is sarcastically funny in the company of her one friend, the easygoing Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), she’s tongue-tied in the presence of her crush, bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert).

When Darian and Krista start dating, Nadine forces them into a ‘them or me’ ultimatum, and is aghast when this backfires and both choose their new relationship over her. She then feels she has nothing. And what makes the film so great is that we can see Nadine is being completely unreasonable, while also feeling the force of her loneliness and understanding the abandonment issues that fuel her rage.

Teenagers certainly aren’t the only ones who catastrophise, but culture has always linked them with over-dramatising worst-case scenarios. Youth mental health initiatives focus on instilling optimism and resilience — which is what makes this film pretty audacious in making a joke of Nadine’s declaration of suicidal intentions to her history teacher, Mr Bruner (Woody Harrelson).

Fremon Craig also undercuts the teen-movie cliché that teachers are inspirational mentors, since Mr Bruner’s mentorship of Nadine mainly consists of mocking and antagonising her. Harrelson’s salty line readings recycle some of the droll misanthropy of his Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games; but he gives the role a gentle dignity. I really enjoyed the film’s general resistance to optimistic homilies — not only from Mr Bruner, but also by replacing homey Wonder Years-style voiceovers with Nadine’s cynical inner voice.

This is a film where adults are absent, unreliable and disengaged. Nadine’s single mum Mona is too wrapped up in her own dating dramas to notice her daughter’s low ebb; she picks up a distressed Nadine from a house party, only to immediately start talking about her own problems. “Everyone else in the world is as miserable and empty as I am — they’re just better at hiding it,” Mona bitterly tells her daughter.

Fremon Craig disrupts the notion that parent-child friendships are intuitive and natural — sometimes, they just don’t understand or like one another. More pointedly, the film also reveals Mona’s closeness to Darian as something more like a stifling dependence. Nobody is going to rescue Nadine — or Mona, for that matter — from her responsibility to make her own life better.

The Perks Of Being A Dipshit

While Nadine has a quick, acerbic wit, she isn’t the kind of quirky John Green misfit that teen films frequently ask us to adore. Fremon Craig steers clear of the precocious post-Dawson’s Creek, post-Buffy, post-Gilmore Girls, post-Juno dialogue that most teenagers only wish they could speak in; instead, she understands their mastery of passive-aggressive sarcasm and awkward muttering. (“Just don’t be so weird!” Nadine begs her mirror image in a bathroom pep talk.)

Instead, Nadine is a self-centred dipshit who lashes out at those around her. It’s clear from the start that nobody is really rejecting Nadine. She isolates herself, fearing loss and humiliation. Nick is a ‘safe’ crush, because Nadine never actually expects him to like her back. It’s only the unfortunate proximity of the ‘delete’ and ‘send’ buttons on her phone screen that forces Nadine to face the real consequences of her desires.

Likewise, Nadine’s rejection of her best friend and brother means she’s forced to respond to the dorky flirtations of her classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), simply so she has company. Because Nadine was so fully committed to her self-talk of perpetual alienation, she’d previously failed to register that Erwin’s any girl’s dream boyfriend: sensitive, funny, buff, creative… and rich.

Most teen films feel as if their characters and plots are intended mainly to actualise the main character. We’re encouraged to identify only with the protagonist; other characters exist to reward and support the protagonist, to help achieve their goals, or help them reach important revelations about themselves. What makes Nadine so ‘unlikeable’ in teen-movie terms — but such a nuanced, relatable character — is that The Edge of Seventeen refuses to centralise her point of view.

Obi-Wan gets it.

The film is interested in using teen-movie contrivances to force Nadine out of her comfort zone. It provokes her — along with the audience — into realising that other people have feelings and lives she can’t control and don’t revolve around her. Mr Bruner doesn’t live in his classroom, dispensing snark. Darian isn’t just a dumb jock thinking with his dick. Krista doesn’t want to give up a guy she likes to be Nadine’s perpetual sidekick. And Erwin mocks Nadine as a snobbish dickhead.

Our cultural narratives about adolescence share the presumption that it has an expiry date. We all are meant to figure our shit out and emerge as fully formed, well-adjusted adults. Pop culture tends to view men’s arrested development as ridiculous, and women’s as pathetic; but it can take an entire lifetime to grow up. And just like the white-winged dove, sometimes a wonderful movie like this makes the years fly away, and we find ourselves right back there, on the edge of seventeen.

The Edge of Seventeen is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.