In The Edge of Seventeen, Nadine is our guide through girl world. Hailee Steinfeld’s teenage protagonist is a mess of jarring accessories and perfectly coiffed curls. She runs into school like she’s on a mission, darting through the familiar cinematic terrain of miscellaneous youths and shiny lockers. Bursting into a classroom, Nadine tries to shock her chosen confidante, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), with a confession: she’s going to throw herself in front of a moving truck. And after suffering through the subsequent, oh-so-self-aware voiceover, you might also be searching for a way out.
Nadine is at once The Edge of Seventeen’s biggest weakness and its greatest strength. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s feature filmmaking debut plays with the notion that every teenage girl is the star of her own movie. The presence of an actual camera only adds another layer of artifice to Steinfeld’s painfully precocious portrayal. We’re watching Nadine watching herself, and no one is liking what they’re seeing. Nadine is a narcissist, in the way that teenage girls often are. She’s fairly confident that she’s the smartest person in any room. She preys on the most tender insecurities of the people that she loves. She is quick to judge and remarkably cruel. But like so many ruthless girls, she saves her sharpest insults for herself. Nadine’s greatest fear is also her inescapable reality—the fact that she will have to spend the rest of her life with herself.
The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t really shatter tropes; instead, it salvages pieces of truth from clichés, mashing them together until we get something that looks a lot like reality. Nadine is the hero and the villain of her own story; she’s the smart, scrappy underdog in every teen movie, and she’s also the resident asshole.
In many ways, Nadine’s destructive anger is justified by what she sees as betrayal. First, by her father, who had the absolute gall to die and leave Nadine with her unstable mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick). Then, by her only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who hooks up with Nadine’s brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and never looks back. Nadine soon learns that hand jobs are a gateway to popularity, as Krista ditches her BFF to play beer pong with her new boyfriend. Instead of being happy for her friend, who has essentially hit the teen movie jackpot, Nadine forces Krista to choose between her friendship and her brother. We watch Nadine’s face fall as Krista reveals that Darian has already asked her to prom. Krista is a cool girl now, and there’s nothing Nadine can do to stop it.
Our heroine proceeds to go on what can only be described as an extended bender of bad decisions. She tortures her well-meaning mother, abuses the un-breakable Mr. Bruner, and propositions the emo boy who works at Petland. She also embarks on a not-so-bad friendship with Erwin (Hayden Szeto), an adorable classmate who’s clearly crushing on her pretty hard. It’s intensely frustrating to watch Nadine follow poor decisions with even worse ones. She’s incapable of forgiving Krista and Darian, she leans on Erwin for companionship, and she lashes out at her Petland plaything when he can’t measure up to her expectations.
Of course, as Nadine would be quick to point out, she’s also a victim. Krista’s abandonment is cold—and while she may miss her best friend, she also seems fairly pleased with the drama of her decision. Mona, meanwhile, is a hit-or-miss mother. On one hand, she clearly cares about her children but on the other, she tells Nadine that the only way to capture a moment of peace in this world is by reminding yourself that everyone else is as miserable and empty as you are. The Petland bad boy is a creep, and there’s nothing sadder than realizing that your history teacher might be your best friend.
In the world of John Hughes movies and happy endings, Nadine knows which character she’s supposed to be. She’s the Angela Chase of her own nondescript suburbia—misunderstood, miserable, but destined for greatness. Unfortunately, she’s been dropped into hostile territory, surrounded by social media-obsessed millennials who aren’t smart enough to understand her. Luckily for us, The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t bend to Nadine’s revisionist history. There’s always a side character ready to colorfully call our protagonist out. In one crucial scene, it’s Mr. Bruner, who interrupts his student’s self-pitying rant to point out that, just maybe, her classmates don’t like her either. In another it’s Darian, explaining that his life may actually suck just as hard as Nadine’s—he just doesn’t have the luxury of showing it. Consistently, the under-appreciated stock characters of the teen movie genre—teachers, moms, and handsome jocks—give The Edge of Seventeen its dark depth. If Nadine is on script, always trying to sound like the self-assured, enlightened heroine she wants to be, then these side players are delightfully unpredictable. For Nadine, the fact that no one in her life behaves as they should, according to the roles she’s assigned them, is a constant disappointment. For the audience, it’s an unexpected pleasure.
Nadine ping-pongs between extreme confidence and aching self-doubt, forced to live every day in the body of an increasingly unlikable character. She starts to suspect that she’s the villain in her own movie, but feels powerless to correct the minor catastrophes she’s put into motion. For all the time she spends analyzing every aspect of her behavior and appearance, Nadine just can’t seem to see herself, let alone others, clearly. But The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t relish in its protagonist’s murk as much as it should. As ugly as Nadine can be—as ugly as being seventeen can be—the film insists on prettying up the frame. Even as Nadine’s angst increases, her Happily Ever After waits patiently beside her. Erwin is Nadine’s obvious out. As far as teenage boys go, he’s suspiciously perfect: smart, funny, buff, rich, and even artistically inclined.
The Edge of Seventeen shirks convention by humbling its smart-alecky protagonist. Instead of a triumphant heroine’s arc, we get a character who’s just starting to step out of the spotlight. The end of the movie finds Nadine showing up to support Erwin at a film festival. She seems content, finally, standing by his side. To say that Nadine is a complicated character is an understatement. Unfortunately, she’s trapped in a film that’s pulling her, from the start, towards a happy ending.