In The Edge of Seventeen (2016), 17-year-old Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld) navigates the awkwardness of becoming an adult in her junior year of high school after her father dies of a heart attack. She reaches a crisis point when her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), hooks up with and begins dating her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). Her relationship with her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), further deteriorates as Nadine vents her frustration on friends, family, and her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). The cloud has a silver lining when she meets a similarly awkward young man, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).
The film has some bright spots, and some genuinely funny or touching moments, but mostly it is just the same cliched teen movie we’ve seen a hundred times before. Not Another Teen Movie already satirized this film in 2001. It may have a deeper meaning, however, if what I perceived as a genuine portrayal of mental illness turns out to be accurate.
Critics loved this movie, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Molly Eichel at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “The Edge of Seventeen is funny and tragic, but most of all it feels real in the same way John Hughes movies felt real. It’s not a candy-coated version of teenagedom. It’s harsh, and awkward, and funny, just like being a teenager.” Other critics called it “straight and sincere,” “smart and perceptive,” and “there isn’t a moment in this movie that doesn’t feel completely true.” Who paid them to write this nonsense?
Numerous critics have laughably compared this film to John Hughes’ 1980s teen comedies. If only it was half as authentic. The Edge of Seventeen exists in an imaginary world where everyone owns a backyard pool, no one is overweight, and even the nerds have washboard abs. I actually rolled my eyes when geeky, stuttering Erwin takes off his shirt to get into the pool, revealing a toned, athletic figure. Nadine Byrd is another shy, awkward character played by a runway model who becomes beautiful and well dressed after spending a quick montage at the bathroom mirror.
As I was watching The Edge of Seventeen, I realized that something was going on beyond just the typical “awkward self-loathing teen.” Although the film is purportedly about a young woman dealing with typical teenage angst, most of the teenagers in the movie actually seem happy and well-adjusted. It’s subtle enough not to catch, but if you pay attention, you will realize that Nadine Byrd and her mother are seriously mentally ill. Nadine’s mother is hysterical, controlling, promiscuous, and dependent on her teenage son for stability. At one point, she turns to her daughter and explains that she only pretends to be happy, when she really feels empty inside.
Nadine acts very much like her mother. She has unstable relationships with other people, an unstable sense of self, and unstable emotions (acting out in fits of anger). She has an extreme fear of abandonment (revealed in her overreaction to her brother and best friend’s relationship), dangerous behavior (telling a boy she just met she wants to sleep with him, then allowing him to drive her to a remote parking lot where she suddenly changes her mind), a feeling of emptiness, and self-harm (binge drinking, threatening suicide). These are all symptoms of borderline personality disorder. BPD can be inherited, or triggered by a traumatic event (death of a close loved one, for example).
If true, The Edge of Seventeen has a terrible message for viewers, which is that Nadine will simply “grow up” someday and stop feeling this way. Yes, everyone does grow out of typical teenage awkwardness and identity crisis, but a serious mental illness like BPD requires regular medical attention. I’ve known people who suffered from this disorder, and it has a lasting, devastating effect on personal and romantic relationships. If left untreated, Nadine’s disorder will likely follow her to college, where she will engage in riskier behavior, substance abuse, and continue to have feelings of abandonment and self loathing.
Woody Harrelson’s character, Mr. Bruner, is a bright spot in the film. He plays the part of an aging, sarcastic teacher well. I wish the rest of the film’s dialog was as witty, subtle, and surprising as his exchanges with Nadine. Unfortunately, The Edge of Seventeen is one awkward scene after another loosely strung together by a boilerplate plot, resolved neatly at the end because “love conquers all.” Much to my disappointment, it’s not as witty, genuine, and endearing as critics claim.