The Edge of Seventeen, dir. Kelly Fremon Craig│Though it seemed at least initially rather out of place in the programme at TIFF this year, the mainstream teen movie The Edge of Seventeen fully deserved to be seen by film critics and a festival audience before being released in cinemas and on VOD platforms. For, under its commercial appearances lies a truly unique, original and sincere film of the kind audiences and critics alike have been all but trained not to expect from the genre anymore.
As in any other teen movie, we follow a young person – in this case a tomboyish girl, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) – who must deal with various issues involving her schoolmates and family. The film’s originality doesn’t lie in Nadine’s problems: they are quite banal for a teenager. The instigating event that sends her life spiralling is in fact a non-issue: Nadine’s best friend Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson) has started dating Nadine’s older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). The question of ‘who is dating who’ has powered other recent teen films from Clueless (1995) and Legally Blonde (2001) to Mean Girls (2004) and Easy A (2010).
But while remaining a comedy in line with those films, The Edge of Seventeen also marks a return to the existentialism and melancholy of youth so characteristic of the genre’s iteration as perfected by John Hughes in the 1980s. As in The Breakfast Club (1985), this new film first presents Nadine’s eccentricity and sarcasm as a personality trait, before revealing it to be a construction, a front to face the world and one which ultimately works to isolate Nadine from others.
Her biting humour and observations, rather than the situations she finds herself in, are as much what makes the film entertaining as what keeps her from seriously facing and dealing with what is wrong with her life. Like many teenagers – more precisely like John Bender (Judd Nelson) in The Breakfast Club – Nadine uses sarcasm as a shield against the world, even fooling her best friend who remains blind to the way Nadine’s irascibility is a sign of unmanaged issues right up until she begins dating Darian.
Nadine’s violent reaction to that coupling comes as much as a surprise to Krista and Darian as it does to the viewers. Indeed to any outsider, there is no real reason why Nadine would be so opposed to this new development. Only progressively do we come to understand that Nadine perceives Krista dating her brother as a betrayal of an implicit pact: that the two friends would never mingle with ‘the losers’, with the world. Nadine is hurt that her best friend would have any interest in a boy she perceives as a spoilt brat, or in any of the other girls attending the school for that matter. When she resolves not to hang out with Krista anymore, she quickly winds up completely alone.
It is common for the lead characters in teen movies to find themselves isolated because everyone at school treats them badly, and for the most part these ‘others’ are presented as unambiguously awful. The titular Mean Girls in Mark Waters’ 2004 film are undeniably heartless and cruel, even if like the arrogant Bender in The Breakfast Club their callousness is ultimately revealed as a sign of their own demons. As such, teen movies tend to portray the difficulty of high school years as being the threat of rejection or attack from other students. Rarely however do they mention the terror that comes with being overwhelmed by their mere existence, however harmless they may be.
Meeting strangers when one is not confident in oneself can be a disarming experience of doubt and self-questioning. It is certainly more common and more relatable than the fear of actual aggression. Yet movies and TV shows are often quick to create genuinely demonic bullies or aggressive school clans in their teen worlds. Cult TV show Freaks and Geeks (1999) managed to convey some of the self-inflicted pessimism of terrified students, but still featured actual bullying and violence. The Edge of Seventeen presents none of that straightforward animosity, and this actually drives Nadine all the more crazy as she is unable to blame anyone for her paralyzing inability to connect with strangers. Her disdain is an answer to her fear of others, a shield against people she actually considers to be much better than her. Like for many other teenagers, her anger conceals terror and jealousy.
The film shares some spiritual territory with the strikingly subversive college movie Legally Blonde in its focus on a certain internalised form of coercion. In that film, although Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods is mostly the victim of men’s misogyny – an external form of oppression – her fight for respect is as much a struggle against sexist men as it is with her low self-esteem. She turns to self-pity in her most difficult moments, while her rival Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) is so afraid of competition that she has completely internalised a kind of misogyny, hating any woman who may challenge her. In The Edge of Seventeen, Nadine similarly hates all the girls who appear confident in her school, indeed anyone who might steal Krista away from her – her own brother included.
After stubbornly refusing to make new friends, the increasingly lonely Nadine eventually tries to mingle with people at parties but finds the experience tear-inducingly hard and humiliating. Lacking the confidence to believe that she might be interesting to anyone, Nadine is awkward, then embarrassed by her own awkwardness, wondering what is wrong with her and hiding herself outside. She becomes more and more anxious and her isolation worsens. The only person she still feels safe turning to is Mr. Burner (Woody Harrelson), a teacher at her school. Every time she comes to tell him her non-problems, Burner either completely ignores or mocks her. His cold, inconsiderate responses create the best and most unexpected laughs in the film. Yet when Nadine’s existential anxiety reaches its peak, his no-nonsense attitude proves a valuable source of stability and reassurance for the young girl and her disproportionate angst.
The film excels at portraying the way depression is basically invisible to outsiders. Because this is a commercial American movie, there are no still, long takes to emphasise a sense of emptiness or Nadine’s dread – the film’s visual aesthetic is rather more basic and ‘TV’ in look and feel. But this absence of heavy-handed visual metaphors for sadness is welcome, for the sense that everything is fine is precisely why Nadine is so ashamed of being depressed and finds it hard to seek any help. Hailee Steinfeld beautifully communicates this sense of blind panic as to why Nadine feels so blue in a subtle performance that should finally make her a star. Comfortable with tackling both the comedy of clumsiness and heavier sequences of despair, Steinfeld handles the tricky breakdown of Nadine’s sham persona – the real existential crisis she is going through – with real generosity and humour.
Yet even in these final moments of self-realisation, the film remains unexpectedly subtle for so commercial an enterprise. Refreshingly there are no unrealistic sequences of overtly-explanatory, heart-to-heart dialogue of the kind we might expect in a mainstream American film. For this very reason, The Edge of Seventeen will be especially moving to anyone who has also struggled with a lack of confidence, and who knows exactly what Nadine means when she is still searching for the words to explain why she is feeling so trapped. ■
The Edge of Seventeen │ Director: Kelly Fremon Craig│ Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig │ Camera: Doug Emmett│ Editing: Tracey Wadmore-Smith│ Music: Atli Örvarsson│ Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick│ Producer: James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, Julie Ansell│ Production Company: Gracie Films / STX Entertainment│Country: USA│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 102 min.│ International Sales: STX Entertainment │ Festival: Toronto IFF 2016 │