The Edge of Seventeen

That unbearable life

While some may dream of going back to high school, The Edge of Seventeen reminds everyone how hard it can be to grow up. Nadine thinks she doesn’t belong, perceives her popular jock brother, Darian, as being favored, and barely survives her mother’s attempts to get back in the dating scene. Nadine wields her wit like a shield to protect herself from a constant sense of loneliness. She picks on her favorite teacher because he doesn’t humor her but rather returns her comments with his own dry wit and concern couched in wise remarks. Her snarky remarks ricochet right back to her as he spins his own.

The Edge of Seventeen sets off with the intention of telling a story about the challenge of navigating those teenage years, and then jumps into bed with the first good-looking story that comes along.

Hailee Steinfeld, who was amazing as a 14-year-old in True Grit (2010), brings Nadine to life and forces us to care even as the character reveals the self-absorption of adolescence. Woody Harrelson seems made for the role of Mr. Bruner, the teacher who disrupts Nadine’s complaints and maybe even reluctantly cares about her.

Nadine’s world was rocked when her father, who seemed to understand her, died in an accident. Now, several years later, her one friend, Krista, after an alcohol-buzzed night, jumps into bed and a relationship with her brother Darian. Nadine flips out and unwisely gives her friend an ultimatum: choose him or me. Ouch. That is a quick way to loose a long-term friend. Just as in real life, friendships often change when you hit those awkward dating times.

Wait a minute. We have been suckered down this path and made to believe that Krista, this amazing friend who doesn’t play the social games and has been Nadine’s friend for years and years, is suddenly, some morning after hooking up with Nadine’s brother, going to be totally committed to the social scene. Within days Krista is dragging Nadine to a party, where she quickly joins the beer pong game, and hanging out with all of Darian’s friends. Did you notice that 30 seconds of conversation and a night in the sack has Krista changing her whole life?

Meanwhile, sitting next to Nadine in class every day is Erwin, an even more awkward teenager who tries to strike up conversations. Erwin lives in a massive house with an amazing pool, but his parents are in Korea most of the time, so just like Nadine, he faces loneliness. Instead of recognizing their similar sense of being on the outside, Nadine continues to make decisions based on the same criteria that she thinks puts her outside of the social sphere. It isn’t surprising that she can’t see past herself, since her mother is stuck with the notion of a one-night stand as the solution to depression and loneliness.

In the midst of fantasizing about a good-looking guy at school, she mistakenly sends a text to him offering to “do it” in the stock room of a Petco. His response is to take her words literally, without understanding that there might be more than sex desired. The destruction of her fantasy finally leaves her open to the possibility of a relationship with Erwin.

Erwin appears not like a hero but in the guise of an awkward, lonely boy who uses art to tell about his own experience. Like Nadine, he is simply seeking someone who will care about his life and interests. The Edge of Seventeen sets off with the intention of telling a story about the challenge of navigating those teenage years, but then jumps into bed with the first good-looking story that comes along. If the film had shown any real conversation between Darian and Krista, I could believe that they would fall in love. Darian picks up the pieces every time his mother loses it, so despite appearances, he is a caring person. The foundation for a different kind of relationship is there, but it is much easier for the narrative to stay with normal filmic techniques.

I expected to like this film when I set out for the theater, since the early reviews were overwhelmingly positive. I remembered the pleasure of watching Juno, which dealt with similar challenges. But The Edge of Seventeen, like its protagonists, tries too hard to be popular and fails to offer any truly imaginative solutions to the challenge of growing up. It offers some cautions about errant thumb strokes on your smartphone, but little in the way of altering social structures. I am open to consider that The Edge of Seventeen, via Nadine’s character, does critique the party culture, in which conversation is replaced by beer pong, and that her relationship with Erwin does offer an alternative. If that is the case, then I’m not sure I want Nadine to reconcile so quickly with Krista, who, after all, swallowed the party pill way too quickly.

The Edge of Seventeen is entertaining, and the acting of Steinfeld and Harrelson are a treat to watch. Given the potential they bring to the film, I had hoped for more. The contrast of relationships that the film exposes without exploring is a good conversation starter with a friend over a cup of coffee.

Rated R for sexual content, language, and some drinking


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.