The Edge of Seventeen, a highly anticipated film that reviewers say takes "teenage movies to a higher place," opens this weekend. Perhaps the film is getting so much attention because of how far it strays from your average high-school-film script: here the girl, played by Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), sees the benefits in the good guy rather than the alpha-jerk, for instance; and the smart Asian character actually has a positive, rather than negative-stereotyped, and leading role for once.
But what Edge of Seventeen shares in common with many teenage drama-comedies is its focus on a misunderstood student, burdened with self-loathing and loneliness. “I don’t even like me,” Nadine (Steinfeld) expresses to her childhood best friend, Krista. “How does anyone like me? I had the worst thought: I've got to spend the rest of my life with myself.” While the character of Nadine repels everyone around her, Steinfeld’s acting shows through because viewers stick with her despite it. We don’t love or hate her—we relate to her.
I vividly recall my own teen angst in high school. A boy even called me an “ice princess" to my face. I felt misunderstood and hurt from things I felt life had dished me. Everybody was at fault, of course, except me. I saw so much of my own experience in this movie, a refreshing reminder both of the ubiquity of the feeling of self-pity and how to overcome it.
Capturing this element of relatability may be writer and director Kelly Fremon Craig’s greatest triumph out of this film. It doesn’t offer up high-school drama that doesn’t apply past high school; it serves viewers a thought-provoking story that is remarkably universal. The Edge of Seventeen tells a powerful message that we could use more of: Behind every bully—every selfish person—is a deep hurt.
Nadine feels stuck and alone. Her father—the only person who seemed to love and truly “get” her—died tragically years prior. Her mother, a selfish hot mess (Kyra Sedgwick), can’t see past her own problems. Her best friend starts a sexual relationship with her brother, and both look at Nadine like she’s the problem for feeling hurt by it. Everyone seems to be acting out of selfishness in the film, and Craig does an excellent job of showing how ugly that is.
There are glimmers of light amid the teenage nightmare in the form of a wise-cracking teacher (Woody Harrelson) and a nerdy classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto). But deeply embedded in self-pity, Nadine can hardly appreciate them, seeking attention, rather than actual human connection, from others to fill her gaping emotional wounds.
When she says to Erwin, who clearly likes her, “Do you want to have sex with me, right now?” as a joke—just to see his reaction, not to actually invite him—the result stings. It’s clear she desired a moment of feeling powerful or in control, regardless of his feelings in the process. When she’s feeling low in another scene, she logs onto Facebook and sends a desperate appeal to a guy she's long admired from afar. For most of the film, Nadine’s cringe-worthy if relatable actions are guided only by one thing: temporary relief from the pain of feeling so lonely.
But staying in the self-pity pit never does anyone any good. As someone recently told me in no minced words, self-pity robs you of dignity. It’s certainly true that dwelling on one’s burdens as Nadine did is isolating. All her short-lived attempts at relief offer no lasting healing, and she feels more alone than before.
Like the character of Nadine, it took me many years to realize that my own unhappiness wasn’t everybody else's fault, it was mine. It was my bad attitude. Then again, I was just at the edge of 17, and some life lessons take growing up to learn. Sometimes it takes going through that dark place to get to the other side. In my own life, it took a friendship with an unexpected person for me to wake from the disillusion—to realize other people suffered too and that in sitting next to each other, our burdens were both a little lighter.
The Edge of Seventeen might not tell this in the most beautiful way, but it does tell a story of character growth, which, just as in real life, does not happen without hardship. It turns out, Nadine needed to acknowledge her flaws; she needed to apologize to those she'd lashed out toward. Once she could do that, she was better equipped to treat herself with kindness, and those around her as well.
This movie may not exactly be Breakfast Club-level classic teenage movie-going—and I wouldn't recommend watching it with any high-school-aged family members—but its resolution after a hundred minutes of depraved selfishness made for a powerful lesson our world could use more of. Growing in understanding that you’re not the only one suffering is too often forgotten. It’s in sharing each other’s burdens that we can all get through teen years—and our whole life—in one piece.
Photo Credit: STX Entertainment