Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), the broken, beautiful heroine of The Edge of Seventeen is in a crisis, and no one likes laughing at her more than the audience. Her mouth is too fast for her mind, and she always realises it too late. She’s perpetually overthinking, sometimes mean, and pretentious in that 16 year old, I’m-not-like-the-rest-of-my-generation way. At a party, she ends up in a bathroom, hopelessly lecturing herself in the mirror over another uncontrollable infraction. “Why are you so awkward?” she says.
When I saw the film, everyone around me laughed. They laughed at her perceived lack of sensitivity, how she turns every little thing over in her mind long after everyone has moved on, that oh-so over-the-top way that she treats everything, her propensity to lecture herself in bathroom mirrors. They laughed at her awkwardness, how lost and self-destructive she was, thinking it was nothing more than a hint of teen melodrama, an ailment that is cured with that wonderful thing called hindsight. Me? I cried.
I admire the push in the marketing that’s tried to get people to see this film, which has affectations about how Edge is “a life saver” that’s the heir to John Hughes. It deserves to be seen by young and old, regardless of whether they know the Top 40 bands that play in the 15 second promos or not, because it’s such an astonishingly honest and nuanced but empathetic portrait of something so frequently misunderstood as depression in teenagers. But in equal measure, it’s been called an “achingly bittersweet comedy” (The New York Times) and “hilarious” (Den of Geek, et al). The quotes slapped across posters and trailers and sprinkled all over Twitter promise a biting but relatively lighthearted, laugh-out-loud romp about a long-time friendship put on the rocks by one (Krista, played by Haley Lu Richardson) falling for the other’s popular brother (Darian, played by Blake Jenner of Glee). That unwanted interruption forms some small part of something much less tidy and much more complex, sad, and bruising.
The discovery isn’t the problem, it’s what’s before and after. Krista has been Nadine’s only constant since childhood, a friendship forged over co-parenting a caterpillar in second grade that’s endured through the teenage downward spiral of death and divorce and absent mothers (Mona, played by Kyra Sedgwick). She’s perpetually on the outs of socialising not for any particular reason, she’s just probably too acerbic, too quick-witted. When Krista starts to talk to Darian’s friends, Nadine sees it as a betrayal, abruptly refusing to talk to her (“you’ve turned into a completely different person,” she says). Her impulsive self-destruction is frustrating but understandable, for it’s something all-too-real. With no one to talk to, fumbling through an unrequited romantic encounter, and rejecting the affections of understanding classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto), she turns to her similarly darkly witted teacher Mr Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who matches her barbs and ends up rescuing her in her darkest moment. In one of the film’s achingly relatable scenes, he says nothing, and instead breaks his cookie in two, offering her half. It’s an olive branch.
John Hughes wasn’t afraid of the darkness either, remembered with affection now because of his flair for individualism and imperfection (the film’s also produced by Say Anything powerhouse Gracie Films, which is another throwback in itself) . His characters were their own people – messy, impulsive people that ran on the adrenaline of emotion – rather than be stable and put together like their parents wanted them to be, who mended friendships and learnt from their mistakes. Writer and first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig uses Nadine’s voice to tell the story. Her screenplay divests with perfection, cliches, or something even emotionally predictable (Harrelson’s scenes have the most chuckles, but the tears are just around the corner), putting itself squarely in the complex, funny, smart, and depressed brain of Nadine (the difficult role is expertly played by Hailee Steinfeld). It’s quick to assert Nadine, Krista, Darian and co as vivid individuals, not stand-ins for all teenagers. It shows her fully, empathises with her but doesn’t shy away from when she’s too abrupt and when she loses control. It’s refreshing in a genre that’s all too used to telling its stories in another, older, wiser voice, one that’s mocking and unsympathetic to those struggles that are forgotten with age.
Because if there’s one thing that pop culture, the discourse, the world at large (pick your target) loves to laugh at more than what teenage girls enjoy, it’s how they think and what they’re afraid of. Late in the film, Nadine talks about how she wishes doesn’t have to live with herself for the rest of her life, about feeling detached from herself and not knowing why she does things. “I’m like ‘why do you do that?’” she says. In another film, Nadine would be told with a pat on the back to calm down, and she’d wake up tomorrow cured. In The Edge of Seventeen, there’s no such miraculous cure. But Nadine gets an understanding hug, and though she’ll amble down the stairs tomorrow hesitantly facing another day of everything being too much, it’ll be a start. And hopefully, you won’t laugh at her along the way.