I have a confession to make: When I was a teenager, I was a bit of an asshole.
Actually, that’s not much of a confession. Everyone was a bit of an asshole when they were a teenager. I didn’t give freshmen swirlies or go full Regina George or anything like that, but I was a mildly pretentious shit who corrected people’s grammar and whose “not like the other girls” syndrome manifested in a blood-chilling terror that someone would find out I secretly liked the Spice Girls. I hung out with a smart, progressive crowd, and I was convinced that I was the awkward idiot of the group, the one who was only kept around out of pity and because telling me to take a hike would be too uncomfortable. That insecurity manifested in a (brief, OK?) baby Republican phase: I thought Ayn Rand was really onto something with her “everyone for themselves” philosophy, I argued with my friends that affirmative action was discriminatory, and I defended the term “Feminazi” (once).
I’m not proud of it, but looking back, I have sympathy for my younger self and why she acted like that. Because being a teenager? Suuuuucks. Hormones are flying around everywhere. You’re under enormous pressure to start becoming an adult, ASAP: get the grades, get into a good college, decide at the age of 16 the career path that you assume you’re supposed to stay on for the rest of your life. If teens have a tendency to be narcissistic and self-involved, who can blame them, really? Everything, when you’re that age, has monumental significance. It’s either the best thing that’s ever happened to you, or the worst. I was convinced that if I flunked my math final I’d spend out my days living in a cardboard box on the side of the road.
This is a long-winded way of getting around to first-time writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen, which just had its world premiere as the closing night film at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theatres on November 18th. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a high school junior and perma-misfit who has only ever had one real friend, the comparatively more “normal” Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Nadine’s home life is far from ideal. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is a bit of a basket-case who’s never been able to relate to her daughter, even though they’re more similar than either of them would admit to. Her older brother Darian (Everybody Wants Some’s Blake Jenner, downgraded from a college freshman to a high school senior) was always a subject of resentment for what Nadine perceives to be his perfect, “Golden Boy” life.
The log-line of The Edge of Seventeen is that when Krista starts dating Damian, Nadine feels betrayed, and Drama Ensues. That could be the plot of any made-for-TV teen comedy/drama, and indeed, The Edge of Seventeen hits a lot of the “generic teen movie” beats. There’s the bad boy (Alexander Calvert) whom Nadine lusts after from afar. There’s the shy, awkward classmate (Hayden Szeto, flipping adorable) who pines for her, even though she sees him as only a friend. There’s the sarcastic teacher/mentor figure, played to perfection by a delightfully biting Woody Harrelson. There are emotional blowups and meet-cutes, and at one point Nadine ends up crying in the rain. It’s, you know… a high school movie. One that’s really funny and really well-done—the best example of the genre since Easy A, I’d say. Certainly better than Barely Lethal and Pitch Perfect 2 (ok, that’s college), the other school drama movies Steinfeld has racked up in the years following her Oscar-nominated turn in True Grit.
Both of those movies were disappointing, and Steinfeld’s characters were on the whole pretty uncompelling; one was left with a sense that, yeah, she’s good, but that Oscar nom must have been a fluke, right? With The Edge of Seventeen, that changes. Fremon Craig has crafted a completely authentic, three-dimensional teenage character. With her cynicism and disdain for other people, Nadine’s like Daria Lite, if more prone to fits of drama. She’s narcissistic and a little mean. I may have rolled my eyes at Nadine proclaiming “I am an old soul. I like old music and old movies and even old people!,” except that shit is exactly the sort of thing I would have said when I was her age. Nadine is bolder than I ever was as a teenager—she’s outspoken, drinks, and is interested in sex, whereas high school Rebecca was terminally shy, wasn’t interested in dating, and had never let alcohol pass my lips.
High school Rebecca also hated herself. I think a lot of teens do, to different degrees. It’s the overwhelming pressure, that lack of perspective, the inability to believe that things will ever get better. Nothing, not even high school, lasts forever.
Nadine hates herself, too. Her lack of self-confidence is crippling, and it draws her into herself and blinds her to the problems of others. There’s a scene late in the film where she talks about the feeling of looking down on herself from above. She hates everything she sees—how she talks, how she acts—and worst of all, she doesn’t know if she’ll ever change. That scene hit me way too hard, because yep, it’s me. (Or, rather, it was me, and still is to a larger degree than I would like. I’m working on it.) There are very few teen characters that I’ve related to quite so much as her. Most adolescent outcasts from the movies, particularly female ones, can be awkward and bad at making friends, but they still have to be, on some level, cool. Think Emma Stone in Easy A or Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. I wasn’t cool. Neither is Nadine—she’s an angsty, bitter hot mess virtually incapable of having a normal conversation. She’s less a Ringwald than an Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, with the proto-goth factor dialed way down and the abrasiveness dialed way up.
I can’t speak as to how much other people will relate to Nadine—maybe I’m viewing my particular experiences and emotional foibles of youth as more universal than they really are. Maybe, if you see The Edge of Seventeen, you’ll see it as a standard teen movie that’s funny, yeah, but the protagonist is kind of hard to root for because she’s such a self-involved dick with a massive case of #firstworldproblems. I don’t know. But I do know that I really wish The Edge of Seventeen had been around when I was seventeen.