“Certain members of our society feel emboldened to express their hatred now because of their misguided leader. More than ever we need diversity in film, because the media has such a big influence on people’s minds. I think as long as we have talented artists of color joining the narrative, we can really unify the people.”
“We don’t need to get caught up in the minutiae,” says Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). “I just thought an adult — you — should know.” Nadine sits in one of those awkward chair-desks you’ll remember from a high school classroom, facing the camera as she addresses her high school history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). The reverse shot looks across his wooden desk as he asks her to get to her point. He only has 32 minutes for lunch. Accommodating, Nadine delivers her news: she plans to commit suicide. Mr. Bruner pokes at his salad.
The start of The Edge of Seventeen suggests it might be a little familiar, the sort of movie in which a sensitive, smart, endearingly articulate adolescent seeks understanding, finds disappointment and calamity before she finds love. It is that, and as such, it reminds you of the usual suspects, from 16 Candles to Clueless and Easy A. True, Kelly Fremon Craig’s first feature updates some old plot points by wrapping them up in current references — a text message precipitates Nadine’s first scene crisis — it tends to be pretty much what you expect.
That’s not to say this reiteration of “kids’ problems movie” is without charms, including engaging performances and an easy rhythm. As often happens in such movies, the soundtrack is lively (including tracks by Two Door Cinema Club, Angus & Julia Stone, and Anderson .Paak), the protagonist provides a self-knowing voiceover, and a series of flashback images show how she’s arrived at her current crossroads.
These crossroads have Nadine living with her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a popular high school jock who seems not to sympathize with her difficulties; namely, her insecurities, her naïvete, and her efforts at cynicism. Like so many other girls in so many other films, Nadine has a longtime best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), with whom she shares a shorthand language, jokes no one else quite gets, and a certain appreciation of child-sized tragedies: flashbacks show them meeting cute (Krista, Nadine reports, is “dressed like a small elderly gentleman”), giggling under a makeshift in-the-bedroom tent, with a flashlight, and worrying over parents’ fighting. They’re adorable. You know they’re in for trouble.
That trouble is dire and comes in two parts, which are related even if they don’t seem so right away. The first is an obvious trauma, the loss of Nadine’s beloved dad (Eric Keenleyside), who has a heart attack in front of her, just as he’s extolling to her the virtues of Billy Joel (her voiceover concisely introduces this flashback as some “really fucked up shit”). The second occurs a few years later, when Nadine feels betrayed when the unconditionally loving Krista and that walking set of conditions, Darian, embark on a romance — or, from Nadine’s point of view, an alliance against her.
Nadine’s perception of this affront — which rhymes with the world’s broader, consistent affront — shapes the film. Even as her mother tries to reason with her (“Is it worth turning the house into a war zone?”), Nadine resists reconciliation. You see her responses as she does, whether she’s confronting Krista across a diner booth table (per a standard shot-reverse-shot opposition), accompanying the happy couple to a high school party (complete with handheld camera confusions) or yearning after a plainly bad idea pretty boy named Nick (Alexander Calvert), who tends to pass through frames in slow motion, the otherworldly, elusive confirmation of Nadine’s worth.
In a fit of frustration, Nadine deposits herself at Nick’s among rows of product, which is to say, in a very narrow space, so everyone’s vision is limited. The limits lead you to anticipate problems, not only because the movie is obviously setting up Nadine’s eventual revelation, but also because you’ve seen this movie before.
And so you arrive at the question The Edge of Seventeen, like all the movies it resembles, cannot answer. In movies of a type, say as in this case, white kids’ problems movies, if you will, the kids having the problems can’t have seen the many kids’ problems movies that precede them. They can’t anticipate their mistakes, as you do, because they haven’t seen them a hundred times, as you have. This means that, no matter the updates — cell phones or viral videos (see: American Pie), graphic comics (Ghost World or Diary of a Teenage Girl) — these movies can’t acknowledge a formidable aspect of their characters’ pop culture universe, the very movies that structure that universe.
One element of that universe is the discovery, at long last, of the good partner (here, a boyfriend). In this case, he’s a self-identified geek and an aspiring filmmaker named Erwin (Hayden Szeto). You can see their compatibility early on, as they sit in class and have lengthy conversations as if no one else is in the room. Erwin’s artistry is appealing, as are his awkwardness and self-consciousness. That Szeto is Asian American (born in Canada) has drawn attention to his role as Nadine’s good ending, from concerns that he accommodates stereotypes or counters stereotypes, and in either case, doesn’t kiss the girl.
It’s not Erwin’s job to undo his movie’s formula. Neither is it Hayden Szeto’s job to fix “certain members of our society“. But, because The Edge of Seventeen opened the weekend after the 2016 US presidential election, Szeto was asked and he offered an answer. “Diversity in film” sounds like a good start (though a late one), because, as Szeto notes, it can be a “big influence on people’s minds”. Now, if only Erwin — and Nadine and Mr. Bruner and everyone else in their universe — can read Szeto’s interview.