Directed and Written By: Kelly Fremon Craig
Rather than a teen tale of werewolves, sweeping romances, or totalitarian governments, Edge of Seventeen gives us a tale of a depressed teen as she goes through a rough time.
17 year-old Nadine Franklin, an anxious, depressed teen who has her share of troubles; her father died when she was 13, she has a difficult relationship with her mother, she lives in the shadow of Darian (her perfect twin brother) and she doesn’t have many friends. Nadine had a lifeline in her best friend Krista, but that’s severed when Krista starts dating Darian. After Nadine ends the friendship, she begins a journey of social exploration.
The best thing about the film is that it allows Nadine to be a flawed protagonist. She makes inappropriate comments, thinks she’s smarter than everyone else, and has the tendency to be insufferable- just like most teenagers. She’s not the whip-smart “quippy” outcast we’ve come to expect in teen cinema- she’s just a girl who feels alone, out of place, and acts out. Nadine feels almost uncomfortably real.
This leads to the other great thing about the portrayal of Nadine- she’s allowed to be flawed without punishment. One of the films that came to mind while watching this is Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, a sensational “teens behaving badly” drama from 2003. Thirteen was also about a depressed teen with a distant mom, but in that film the main character falls into a spiral of sex, drugs, and crime that almost ruins her. Acclaimed at the time, the film feels like a moral panic story now.
In contrast, Nadine drinks, but her worse punishment is a hangover. She is sexually curious, but she finds out that her crush without any tragedy or trauma. A different film would have had the scene end in assault, an exploitable trope teen films have the tendency to fall back on. In the case of many teen films, “bad” behavior has to come at a price (see: pregnancy, assault, arrest), and seeing a character allowed to make mistakes with no “moral retribution” is refreshing.
The film also portrays mental illness well. Nadine is suffering from depression, and that is exacerbates the conflicts Nadine is facing. Rather than portraying depression as “sad all the time”, we see Nadine exhibit a nuanced range of emotions. The movie understands what a lot of pop culture does not understand: Depression isn’t “bad things make you depressed”; you live with depression, and bad events exacerbate it.
The Edge of Seventeen would not work as well as it does without its cast. Hailee Steinfeld, in her best performance since 2010’s True Grit, breathes life into Nadine. Steinfeld makes the character endearing rather than annoying. As for supporting cast, Woody Harrelson turns in one of his better later performances as Nadine’s History teacher, Mr. Bruner. Harrelson plays Bruner as compassionately sarcastic. He understands that Nadine is going through a time and lets her vent, but also recognizes when she’s being hyperbolic. Mr. Bruner ends up being one of her strongest allies and helps her through some of her darkest moments in the film.
Unfortunately, it leads to one of the film’s most problematic moments. At one point in the film, Nadine sends an embarrassing message and tells Mr. Bruner that she’s going to kill herself. Bruner responds with a joke. Granted, he had been talking to her enough to know that she likely wasn’t serious, and does give her good advice and reassurance at the end. It can even be argued that his mockery reinforces how people don’t take depression seriously, especially when it can be written off as adolescent angst. But in a film that deals with depression, flippant remarks played for laughs goes against the message.
The other problem is that “nice guy syndrome” sneaks into the end. Throughout the film, Nadine flirts back and forth with her classmate Erwin (Hayden Setzo, the only non-white member of the cast). It’s clear that he likes her and knows she’s going through a rough time, so he respects her space. That is, until the resolution of the film, which brings their relationship to a jarring climax.
Nadine goes to an animation festival, where he presents his piece: an animated movie about a love-struck alien who, after repeat rejections, saves his crush- only to reject when she finally comes around and asks him out. It reeks of the Nice Guy complaint (in which one asks: “I’m a nice guy, why won’t she date me?”) and comes across as mean spirited. Considering Erwin was genuinely kind to Nadine, his movie comes across as out of character, and almost ruins what was a sweet relationship. One should note that like Nadine, Erwin is 17, and isn’t perfect or fully enlightened- if Nadine is allowed to be flawed, so should Erwin. But the filmmakers should have considered the potentially toxic message it adds to the film.
What hurts the film most though, is the ending. The issues with her family and Krista are resolved without much conflict, and Nadine gets “better” much too easily. It just feels too neat for a film that allowed its protagonist to be so messy. Perhaps it may have been stronger if the film’s ending was more ambiguous, with a glimmer of hope instead of the reassurance of tidy resolution.
Overall, The Edge of Seventeen is a movie worth watching, despite some glaring flaws. Teens are complicated and sometimes contradictory- it makes sense that films about them may be the same. The film still rings true in a way that many teen films do not, to the point where it is uncomfortable how familiar it seems. It’s a film that speaks to how teens may feel, rather than what they wish for.