Sunday, December 4, 2016

A few thoughts on The Edge of Seventeen's fascinating protagonist



Reviews for The Edge of Seventeen have been overwhelmingly positive, with critics citing it as a classic teen movie, the first in a long time.  That's true, the film is fantastic and sure to be very high on my best-of list at the end of the year.  It's funny and heartbreaking, with a generous script that allows all of its characters to be fully formed and go through their own little arcs.  But at the center of it all is Nadine (played by Hailee Steinfeld), a perennial outsider still coping with the death of her father four years ago, who finds herself angry and alone when she breaks up with her best and only friend Krista after she starts dating Nadine's brother.  There's something that really stuck with me about Nadine's character and her journey, so I wanted to write some semi-scattered thoughts about her.

Nadine has many hateable qualities -- she's rude, impulsive, selfish, inconsiderate...the list goes on -- but I found myself loving how hateable the film was willing to make her.  There are a few questions I asked myself when trying to figure out if Nadine was a good protagonist: 1. Would this movie be better if she was more likable?  2. Is the film aware that she is unlikable?  Really, both are tied together, as it feels like the answer to the second answers the first as well.  The film is very aware of her unlikability.  It's very pointed and deliberate that every character in it tells Nadine that she's kind of a trash person at one point or another.  She's never treated like the hero, the way that alot of stories about teen outsiders would.  And I think that's why it's essential for her to be unlikable, because the entire story is about examining that unlikability.

I've seen some of the more negative reviews of The Edge of Seventeen that have made fun of the scene where Nadine goes on a rant to her teacher (an amusingly cantankerous Woody Harrelson) about how much she isn't like the other girls at school, how she likes old music and movies.  But all of that trite special snowflake garbage isn't an endorsement of Nadine, it's the film pointing out a clear defense mechanism of hers.  She presents herself as different from her peers as an excuse to not have to make any real connections.  (It also creates some hilarious irony, because as much as she tries to argue for her uniqueness and inner coolness, she still has a crush on the lamest, most cliche mysterious boy ever.)

A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine who didn't like the film as much as I did.  She's a little bit younger than I am, so Nadine is more of a peer to her, and one of my friend's big issues with the film is that there are many moments where Nadine acts in ways that no teenage girl ever would.  So she felt like it was frustrating that this film that was touted as "THE movie for this generation" would get so many details of what it's like to be a teen girl wrong.  I thought she brought up some very astute points and I'm certainly not an authority on this matter, so I can't really speak to Nadine's realism as a teenage girl, but I found her intensely relateable at times.

More than anything, Nadine seems like a deeply angry person, and something about that anger resonated with me.  I'm not as mean as she is, but that feeling of always being so angry all the time hit so close to home.  Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, with the help of a terrific performance Hailee Steinfeld, does such a wonderful job of sketching out the way she masks feelings of pain and insecurity with anger and careless comments.  It's a delicate and difficult thing to do, but you could always recognize the thousands of complicated emotions nested under her mean surface.  In a weird way, even when Nadine's actions aren't understandable, that lack of being understandable feels understandable.

And though it's never quite explicitly stated in such terms, it seems that Nadine is suffering from anger and depression issues that go beyond simple adolescent angst or even grief from the death of her father.  I think it's telling and crucial that four years have already passed after her dad's death when the film starts.  Not to say that four years is enough to completely get over something like a parent's death, but that detail -- plus the flashbacks showing that she's always been sullen, standoffish, and angry -- indicates that her problems existed regardless of the tragedy in her life.  Her father's death merely exacerbated them.  Another key moment is when we see her taking a pill and we learn a few scenes later that it was an anti-depressant when she explains it to Erwin, the nerdy guy who has a crush on her.  She explains that they were given to her because of her dad's death, and then she remarks "usually people only take it for like a month..."  It's an exaggeration to try to downplay the fact that she's on medication, but she also brings up a good point.  If this medication was solely given to her to cope with the aftermath of her father's death, would she still be taking it four years later?

There are even tiny little aspects of her character that point to deeper issues, like the fact that she offhandedly jokes about suicide three different times in the film.  Sure, adolescence is typically characterized with melodrama but the frequent suicide references, even in a casual manner, is something that felt very recognizable as a fellow depressive type.  The big emotional moment comes near the end of the film when Nadine reconciles with her brother revealing the intense self-loathing that she's been holding in.  "Sometimes I feel like I'm floating outside of myself...and I hate what I see."  It's a devastating scene, one that really seems to cross off the last slot on the mental illness bingo card.

Whether my possible crackpot theory is off or not, what I'm saying is that it's interesting and daring that the film makes Nadine so messed up and doesn't run away from it.  That's why if I do have one gripe with the film, it's that the ending feels a little too pat.  I would have much preferred if it concluded in a way that mirrored Erwin's short film, with her finally coming to her senses and him rejecting her because she's too late.  Or would that have felt too on the nose?  Maybe, but it would have done a better job of cutting down the simplistic "Nadine came to terms with her issues and now she's nice and thoughtful and happy" impression of the ending we get.  Still, that's one little blemish on an otherwise sublime film.  I don't know if it's the essential movie of this generation, but it did feel like a movie specifically for me.

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