“Everyone else in the world is as miserable and empty as I am—they’re just better at hiding it,” is how Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) advises her daughter Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), the 17-year-old protagonist of Kelly Fremon Craig’s new movie The Edge of Seventeen. These cynical words are nonetheless comforting. Nadine spends a lot of time pining for the good time she perceives everyone else around her as having. She attends a party full of more popular kids, including her overachieving brother Darian (Blake Jenner), and after the slightest taste of social awkwardness, admonishes herself in private (“Just don’t be so weird!”). She attempts to attract the attention of her crush Nick (Alexander Calvert), but fumbles several times. Existing in any normal capacity, as Nadine sees it, is a challenge. The best she can do, it seems, is repudiate the entire concept of “normal.”
Nadine may be miserable, but one thing she isn’t is empty. This is partly because her role is written with the kind of nuance that you see so rarely in movies, particularly those focused on teens. As desperate as Nadine is to fit in, she has utter contempt for the society she has found herself in. The Edge of Seventeen opens with a voiceover in which Nadine explains that there are two types of people in the world: those who radiate confidence and succeed seemingly without effort, and those who want the first group to die in a fire. She knows that everyone wants to be important in life, but to invest much into that ideal is to put yourself on an eternal hamster wheel, for there’s always someone more important. But Nadine’s disdain for the status quo is more than reactionary—to her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who eventually becomes something of a father figure (Nadine’s own father died years ago), she rants about kids today and their reliance on the phones and their communication through emoji and their addiction to posting the most banal details of their life on social media. For a long, glorious stretch of this movie, Nadine lives between the two poles of wanting to be loved by everyone while hating everything about the world. Nadine may be struggling to communicate within her immediate environment, but as a character study, simultaneity makes her sing.
The other element of Nadine’s fullness lies in Steinfeld’s awe-inspiring performance, so natural that she disappears into her character. She is fully up for the challenge of portraying the multitudes that Nadine contains, and at no point does she ever telegraph how difficult that might have been. What’s more is that her sense of humanity keeps Nadine likable, even when she’s being a total asshole—early in the movie, Nadine forces her friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) to choose between Nadine and Nadine’s brother Blake, with whom Krista just hooked up. You understand why Krista reluctantly chooses Blake, and accordingly, how devastated that leaves Nadine. The Edge of Seventeen is covered in empathy to the extent that it’s practically aesthetic.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much I related to this movie, as a man several years older than its central character. That push-pull of astonishment and cynicism never goes away, really, as you examine human behavior throughout life—at best, the tide just gets easier to ride. The idea that everyone else is having a better time lingers, too—envy wouldn’t be listed as one of the seven deadly sins if it evaporated with adolescence. The kind of dissociation that Nadine describes, where she feels herself floating out of her body and watching it from below, helpless to her own actions, can take years to learn to control.
Kelly Fremon Craig told /film that she spent six months among high school students to research the Edge script, discovering in the process that “a lot of what they were saying was universal and true.” To Indiewire, she said, “Part of what I was exploring and what inspired me was this idea that I think a lot of us carry around that everybody has life figured out except you... It’s particularly loud in your life at that age. It’s really easy to believe it. It’s easy to romanticize other people’s lives and feel worse about your own.” Through a teenage character, Craig illustrates a greater phenomenon of the human condition exacerbated by the way people display curated versions of their lives on the internet. As we get older, the world gets newer. That’s why Nadine’s aforementioned rant about social media is so apt.
The Edge of Seventeen reminds me of nothing as much as Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film Ghost World, which found its characters similarly enthralled and repulsed by the universe. But where Ghost World had its protagonist Enid Coleslaw skipping town in that film’s emotionally ambiguous but nonetheless poignant conclusion, Edge, disappointingly, gives Nadine a far more conventional ending. She has an epiphany about her attitude and selfish outlook and immediately, it seems, things fall into place for her—her arc has a steep uptick that’s at least dizzying, if not an utter betrayal of the realism the first 80 or so minutes of the film laid out. Just like that, Nadine achieves what the status quo would have her aspire to, and drops her bad habit of shitting on everything.
Yes, maturing means reining in selfish and misanthropic impulses, but again and again Edge suggests that Nadine kind of has a point in her cynicism. In fact, her resistance to the things life tells you to want make her aspirations palatable. It’s not that this ending feels unearned, or that you don’t want to see Nadine happy, it’s just that in a character study like The Edge of Seventeen, a resolution that streamlines a character whose primary strength was her complicated nature and relationship with the world feels like a copout. I wonder how Nadine would react to her own story’s ending. Something tells me it would make her roll her eyes.