The Edge of Seventeen Revisited

This film’s protagonist is definitely not a “typical teen” dealing with the pains of becoming an adult.

I decided to revisit writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s 2016 film The Edge of Seventeen, since it appeared on Netflix earlier this year. My review of The Edge of Seventeen is one of my most popular, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Then again, I think I missed the point of this movie as well, since it has near-universally high ratings from both critics and audiences, and I thought it was eye-rollingly cliche and annoying.

What I suspect draws people to my review is my theory that the main character, Nadine, is suffering from borderline personality disorder. It seems fairly obvious, and I wonder whether this was intentional. Since writing my review, I’ve received feedback from readers who are familiar with BPD and share my suspicions.

In case you haven’t seen the film, The Edge of Seventeen is about an awkward teenage girl, Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld), who experiences a crisis when her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), starts dating her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). Her relationship with her mother, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), deteriorates as Nadine vents her frustration on friends, family, and even her cynical history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). The cloud has a silver lining when she meets a similarly awkward young man, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).

I’ve read several interviews with writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig in which she explains her film is about authentically capturing teenage angst and relationships (I’ll explain why this doesn’t hold water later), but I suspect there’s something she’s not telling us.

The first clue that Craig intended to create a character with borderline personality disorder (or at least some kind of psychiatric illness), was Nadine’s mother. Early in the film, Nadine explains “My mom has to take medicine, or she’ll get upset and buy too much at the mall.” Hmm… Medicine for what? Spending sprees can be symptomatic of both Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder.

Mona is also impulsive, sexually promiscuous, leans on her teenage son for stability, lacks emotional control, and even tells Nadine she feels “miserable and empty.”

Her mother’s behavior is relevant because BPD can be inherited, as well as triggered by a traumatic event. In Nadine’s case, that event came when her father, with whom she was close, had a heart attack and died while driving them home from a drive thru. That’s the moment she says her life accelerated its downward slide. Her personality is basically a checklist of BPD symptoms.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “People with borderline personality disorder also tend to view things in extremes, such as all good or all bad. Their opinions of other people can also change quickly. An individual who is seen as a friend one day may be considered an enemy or traitor the next. These shifting feelings can lead to intense and unstable relationships.”

Other symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder include:

  • Efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, such as rapidly initiating intimate (physical or emotional) relationships or cutting off communication with someone in anticipation of being abandoned.
  • A pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation).
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self.
  • Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, and reckless driving.
  • Recurring thoughts of suicidal behaviors or threats.
  • Intense and highly changeable moods.
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness.
  • Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger.
  • Difficulty trusting, sometimes accompanied by irrational fear of other people’s intentions.

Nadine idealized her friend Krista, until Krista started dating her brother. She angrily throws her shoe in an emotional outburst at a burger joint, and makes Krista and Darian’s relationship about her, as though it means they are rejecting her. Feeling abandoned, Nadine gives her childhood friend an ultimatum: “It’s either him or me.”

This is a 16-year-old girl who binge drinks hard liquor to the point of throwing up and threatens suicide in front of her history teacher. I admit it’s been a while since I was in high school, but I’m pretty sure that’s not typical behavior for a teenage girl, even if she is on “the edge of seventeen”. (see what I did there?)

Contrary to what others have said, The Edge of Seventeen is NOT “brutally honest and so agonizingly real, portraying the pain of being a young adult…” that “doesn’t shy away from showing the messy, complicated and absurd sides of teen life.”

While Nadine’s main love interest, Erwin, is shy and awkward, only Nadine seems to be having problems navigating her late teenage years. The other characters in the film have friends, hobbies, relationships, and appear emotionally stable. Even the “bad boy” asshole, Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert), has friends and a job. How could this be a film about portraying the pain of being a young adult, when nearly every other teenage character seems relatively happy and well adjusted?

As I pointed out in my previous review, what irks me most about this film is that here you have a young woman who’s obviously suffering from a serious mental illness, but its message is that she’s just going through a phase and will “grow out of it.” No, she won’t. People who suffer from untreated mental illness have serious impairments throughout their lives, making it difficult to maintain relationships, employment, and their physical health.

Then again, as a man in his late 30s, I’m obviously not the target audience for The Edge of Seventeen, so I could be way off base. What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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