The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

After watching a Taiwanese coming-of-age film, it feels oddly appropriate to next watch an American one, though this one is about a 17-year old high school girl set in modern times. As usual this one got my attention by making onto various critics’ lists of their best films of the year but within about a half hour of it, I was puzzled by its inclusion as it seemed like a fairly generic movie about teenagers. Thankfully, my initial impressions were incorrect as this film is indeed smarter than it first appears to be.

The story is told from the perspective of high-school girl Nadine whose lack of social skills and abrasive personality turn her off from nearly everyone around her. She is convinced that her mother favors her popular older brother Darian and after her father dies her only confidante is her best friend Krista. One day however the inevitable happens: Darian and Krista hook up and become an item. Nadine is infuriated and vents her frustration on her hapless history teacher. At the same time, she nurses a crush on another student who doesn’t know her at all while she flirts with another boy who does have a crush on her but who she in turn finds to be socially awkward and a bit of a nerd.

I thought I had this film pegged early on as a competent but fairly run of the mill of a teenage girl who struggles to find her place within her usual social circles. Scenes like Nadine and Krista mocking her brother wearing tight shirts that show his nipples and how he spends more time making sure he looks good than the typical girl prompt the audience to view her in a sympathetic light. So when her kindly father is able to elicit giggles from her even at her naughtiest, we take her side in seeing her mother as an overly manic personality who unfairly takes her brother’s side in everything. Yet as we continue to watch her interactions with the people around her, we inevitably arrive at the opposite conclusion: everyone is already trying their best but it is Nadine herself who persists in behaving like as asshole. Once I wrapped my mind around this subversion of the usual expectations, I became impressed by what the film was trying to do and enjoyed myself a lot more.

Nadine is in effect the protagonist-villain of the piece and not the heroine. With this in mind, The Edge of Seventeen becomes a realistic portrait of the worst traits of teenagers. She belittles other girls for their inane comments on social media and their usage of emojis but engages in the same behavior when interacting with the subject of her crush without a hint of self-awareness. She criticizes her mother’s shortcomings as a parent without any sympathy for the challenges she faces as a single mother. Towards the end, the film becomes a bit too on the nose with the messaging, but as you grow to dislike her character more and more, it does feel very satisfying to watch her come crashing straight against the reality that everyone else is the locus of their own problems and the world doesn’t revolve around her.

The downside is that the film declines to go into truly dark territory and yet Nadine’s actions are so ill advised that she tempts fate badly enough that it would be the expected outcome. You’ll know that scene when you see it and its tone is dramatically different from that of the rest of the film. Her contrition at the end is also too abrupt and too complete to belong in any serious film and reminds one that this is indeed a light-hearted comedy. I also found the humor here to be merely okay. Amusing enough, but nothing brilliant. One thing of note is that this film seems to have been co-produced with Chinese companies as the opening logos make evident. I can’t help but wonder if this had anything to do with the choice here to make the good boyfriend character for Nadine here an Asian American. I believe that an Asian American man with a Caucasian American women is an extremely rare pairing. In any case, I welcomed the novelty but hopefully it wasn’t done due to studio pressure.

Anyway this film overcame a lackluster first impression to become something truly interesting and well deserving of its place as one of the best films of the past year. Maybe it’s just me being old but so many films about teenagers tend to take the side of the young. It’s rather nice to watch one where the tables are turned for once and the main teen-aged character really is as obnoxious, self-absorbed and hypocritical as high school students often are.

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