Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 2016
Greg, it’s about time we got in touch with our inner-teenager.
It’s time for high-school drama. I’m not on the edge of my seat. Let’s recap:
We meet a 17-year-old high school junior named Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). She runs into her history teacher’s (Woody Harrelson) empty classroom while he’s eating lunch and proceeds to tell him that her life sucks and she wants to kill herself. We then flashback to when she was a very little girl. She was the anxious one who never fit in, while her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) always seemed so perfect.
And her super-cool-and-nice dad died 4 years ago. And she’s in love with the local bad boy just back from juvenile detention. And her mom just doesn’t understand. And mom is running off to a weekend with a dentist she met on Match.com. So it’s time for a party. And her best friend since grade school just hooked up with her brother. And the nerdy/shy boy in class likes her. And now, all Nadine wants is to get with the bad-boy hottie and break up her bestie and brother.
Greg, every decade has movies of teenage angst. There were the Molly Ringwald movies of the 1980s. In the 1990s we had Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. In the 2000’s we had Ellen Page show us similar teen angst in Juno. Now in the 2010s, we have Hailee Steinfeld continue in the same tradition in The Edge of Seventeen.
You may recall that I suggested that we see this movie because as a coming-of-age story, it held the promise of showing good examples of mentoring. And I was mostly right. Nadine’s dad was shown to be a loving soul, the only adult figure she could count on and who understood her. Her history teacher, Mr. Bruner, is less loving but represents a stable presence in her life. Nadine’s mother is an anti-mentor, a broken woman whose damaging comments send Nadine into the arms of a boy who is obviously bad for her.
Scott, I was wary of this movie from the get-go. It smacked of a Judy Blume story akin to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” In fact, at the “dark moment of the soul” (DMS) point in the film, Nadine (on the toilet) actually prays to God asking for help. My fears were confirmed.
In many ways, this film starts out like 2007’s excellent Juno. It has a smart, nerdy, outcast teenage girl trying to find her way in high school. But it takes a turn for the worse at that DMS moment I mentioned and from there it devolves into an “ABC Afterschool Special.”
Nadine does finally hook up with the bad boy and she stops him before things go too far and explains she’d like to get to know him better. In any modern story, Nadine might have been raped. But in this story the bad boy simply kicks her out of his car. Then she has a run-in with her brother and realizes everything isn’t about her and she finds acceptance with the nerdy boy and his crowd of friends. This was very much a sunny resolution to what was an otherwise darkish story.
Wow. To me, this movie was as unlike an afterschool special as any movie we’ve ever seen. Those ABC specials have bland characters and dialogue and suffer from utter predictability. The Edge of Seventeen boasts characters with considerable depth and nuance. Mr. Bruner, for example, is mysterious. Does he care about Nadine or not? How will he end up helping her? Older brother Darian is also complex. He does appear too perfect for us to like him, but in the end he reveals his wounds and vulnerability.
Nadine’s mother is a complete mess and does her best to ensure that her daughter is a mess, too. She tells Nadine something almost unforgivably hurtful, yet at least reveals a small willingness to let her daughter grow. I will admit that the disastrous romantic encounter with the bad-boy is predictable — such encounters seem to be a core part of the teenage angst movie formula. Still, the litmus test for good characters for me is whether I’m eager to learn more about them. This movie passes that test. I want to know more about Nadine’s dad, Mr. Bruner, Krista, and Erwin.
I agree that Nadine is an interesting character. She starts out as an outsider and eventually finds her niche. She’s witty, troubled, overly dramatic, smart, but not exceptional in any particular way. Which makes her an everywoman. We identify with her and feel her loss when her father dies – the one person who seemed to understand her.
And you’ve nailed the mentor role her father plays. Her mother plays the counter example as the anti-mentor. I was a bit disappointed in Bruner’s role. He’s hilarious as the “teacher who’s seen it all.” But I don’t know if he qualifies as a mentor. Usually we look for mentors to act as a guide for the hero as she navigates the special world. But Bruner is very hands-off. On the other hand, he’s always there for her. And when everything comes crashing down around Nadine’s shoulders, he is the dependable adult. I liked Bruner a lot, but I don’t know that he qualifies as a mentor.
In a way, you’re right, Greg. Bruner is a stable older-male presence, which is perhaps all she needs from him. You could argue that Bruner’s wife, in a brief passing comment, does more good mentoring for Nadine than Bruner ever did. Maybe we can call him “the subtle mentor.” Nadine does run to him (literally) when her life is in shambles. He listens, offers a sardonic retort, and she relaxes. He tells her that she’s his favorite student. That could be all she needs or expects from him.
The Edge of Seventeen is a movie that’s not for everyone. It’s heavy on personal drama and teenage whining. But I was impressed by the film’s dark, edgy realism. Most of us know the pain of growing up, feeling isolated, losing a loved one, and struggling with relationships. This movie masterfully taps into those archetypal feelings. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.
Turning now to the hero’s journey, Hailee Steinfeld does a hell of a job navigating her way through the traps and snares of adolescence, emerging on the other side a significantly changed individual. Her journey features many of the classic elements of the hero’s path, and only when her dream romance with the bad-boy is shattered does she obtain insight and clarity about who she is and what’s important in life. I award Nadine a total of 4 Heroes out of 5.
The mentorship here is subtle and unique. Nadine carries with her the scars of losing her father whom she adored, and the mother who has damaged her. She turns to her history teacher, Bruner, for sanity and stability. He offers her this and his wife offers her words of encouragement. Joseph Campbell has said that even with help the hero must always travel the journey on her own, and Nadine certainly does exactly that. I give the mentors a rating of 3 out of 5.
The Edge of Seventeen is a contradiction within itself – starting out dark and edgy but ultimately delivering a saccharine view of modern teenage life. I was disappointed by the two pivotal scenes where Nadine finally gets a date with her bad-boy crush and gets accepted into a new crowd. They smacked of the simplistic worldview of the After School Special. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for Edge.
Nadine is a wonderful hero and goes through the trials and tribulations that I imagine young girls go through. Her ultimate resolution in finding a niche where she fits in is a nice ending to her hero’s journey, but not very complex. I give Nadine just 3 out of 5 Heroes.
And while I liked the mentoring of the father in the film, it was mostly off-screen in flashbacks. I’m not sure if we can really give Mentor points to him. Although, we have recognized unseen teachers as mentors in such films as The Martian. Bruner is less of a mentor and more of a supporting character – literally. I am not sure what kind of mentoring that might be. I can only give 3 out of 5 Mentor points to them.