Female Filmmaker Friday: The Edge of Seventeen, 2016 (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)

When this movie came out in 2016 it was the final film directed by a woman who was going to receive a wide release. It opened opposite Fantastic Beasts, and as you can imagine it did not do all that well. It didn’t do poorly – grossing $18mil on a $9mil budget is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also not great for a movie that opened in over 2000 theaters. It was originally scheduled for a September release, but was moved to November (possibly to help its awards chances), which I think hurt its chance to become a sleeper hit (we have so few of those these days). I had a twitter chain about the film go viral, which led to me guesting on the Filmspotting podcast, where I talked about the film, as well as my ever-growing list of films about teenager girls directed by women. (There’s a larger conversation to be had about how the conversation around Ladybird was all on how few films about teenage girls are about women when a) this film had literally been released a year earlier and b) my list is over 200 films as of writing this). I was a big fan of Hailee Steinfeld from her turn in True Grit, so I was really excited that she was finally going to get a big launch film (if only it had pushed her into the stratosphere like Easy A did for Emma Stone!)

I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed this movie because Kelly Fremon Craig wrote one of my least favorite movies of all time: 2009’s Alexis Bledel mishap Post-Grad. Now, this may have been a case of a good script getting destroyed in the Hollywood machine. I do not know. All I know is there are few movies that made me as actively irritated while watching as that movie. But, the pedigree of the cast, as well as the fact that Craig had sent her initial script for The Edge of Seventeen (then titled Besties) to James L. Brooks asking him to produce specifically because she was a fan of his, made me think this might actually be something great. I am so glad I gave it a chance because I was so pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed it. Part of this is due to its R-rating. These kids get to act and speak like real teenagers, which gives it a much more authentic feel. Unfortunately, I think that R-rating was also a factor in its box office take being much lower than it could have been.

The film opens with Steinfeld’s character Nadine (though you don’t see her face at first) driving up to school and heading to speak to her favorite teacher/confident in a real hurry. I am convinced the way this was shot is a reference to Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens.

Am I right or am I right?

Woody Harrelson is fantastic as Mr. Bruner, who as the film begins appears to be Nadine’s only friend. He really nails that cool-teacher-who’s-almost-your-friend-but-not-quite vibe. You can tell Harrelson was having a blast playing this character. There’s also a great scene later in the film where Nadine finally gets to see him outside the context she knows him as, teacher, but as a whole person with an outside life, including a baby and a wife. A lot of this movie is about Nadine realizing her own self-centered habits and her friendship/mentorship with Mr. Bruner helps her find the introspection that leads towards growth.

One thing I particularly like about this film is that in the close-ups of Nadine you see her acne (and in a flashback to her younger years, you see her first full-on experience with a baaaaad breakout). This was another point in the Ladybird narrative that was written as if it was revolutionary. I hate to keep comparing the two films because they each have their own merits. What I find annoying is the conversation, because often statements are made that are patently not true. A lot of buzz around films tends to ignore that there are 100+ years of cinema, but when it’s making statements about one film when another film just one year earlier did similar stuff, it’s particularly frustrating.

In the film we learn that Nadine has a few years earlier lost her father and is dealing with the stress of her mother still grieving. She mostly takes comfort in her life-long friendship with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).

We see in a flashback how the two met in elementary school and stayed friends through the ups and downs of growing up.

We even see a moment that we all have been through: having someone hold our hair while we vomit from excess drinking. This is the test of a friendship.

The main friction in the film is when Krista begins dating Nadine’s brother Darian (Blake Jenner). This causes issues for a myriad of reasons, including Nadine being uncomfortable with their close (read: sexual) relationship, but also with the loss of her best friend (at least in her mind) to her bother as their friendship becomes less of a priority than their budding relationship. Again, this stems from Nadine’s extreme self-centered behavior. She can’t see beyond what this relationship means to her and her life. She has a hard lesson to learn.

Aside from her friendship with her teacher, she seeks solace in classmate Erwin (the incredibly charming Hayden Szeto). I love this scene when they try to talk to each other on the phone. It is delightfully awkward in all the best ways.

After attending a disastrous party with Krista and her bother, Nadine goes to an amusement park with Erwin. We know that he has a crush on her. Nadine sort of knows he does as well. She uses this to get the attention she so desperately seeks, but in a way that isn’t really fair to Erwin or respectful of his feelings.

As much as I love watching their awkward non-date, I can’t help but feel bad for Erwin, who came with one expectation (and a very sweet one at that) and instead found himself caught up in Nadine’s selfishness. I do like the way this plays out because Craig never once vilifies Nadine, even when we know she’s not being that great of a person. She’s got some growing up to do and Craig as a filmmaker respects that and gives the character room to do it organically.

Kyra Sedgwick is really great as Nadine’s grief-ridden mom who has dealt (or not dealt) with her grief by at times being overly conscious of their image and status, and at other times being overly dramatic about every little thing happening in their lives. She lost her husband in such an unexpected way (we see he had a heart attack in a flashback), that she is having trouble finding a good hold on anything. A fight with her, on top of all the issues with Krista, leads Nadine to do something drastic.

That is, of course, to send a sexually explicit text to the boy she has a crush on – on accident. This is why you should never type a text as a draft. Write your drafts in your notes app! This is the big emergency that we see at the beginning of the film.

After discussing it with Mr. Bruner, she decides gets herself a fro-yo to wait out the repercussions of this accidental-sext, still thinking it is the end of the world. . .

. . .however, the boy she sent it to, Nick (Alexander Calvert), is delighted with the text and asks her out. She, being much more naive than she thinks she is, thinks this is a going to be a date. But unlike the non-date with Erwin, the whole activity is just sitting in his car. We see her agonizing over what to wear. There’s a lot to be said about how long women get ready for dates compared to most men. I’m sure there’s been many a study on this. We’ve all seen Nick earlier in the film and we know she is barking up the wrong tree. We know this is not going to end well for her. Hey this film is rate-R, who knows where it’s going to go. It goes where we expect it to go – Nick thinks her text was an invitation for sex, whereas Nadine just wants to go on a real date. Have a real boyfriend. Take things slow. Thankfully, after several attempts to go further than Nadine wants to go, she is able to get herself out of the car. This sequence could easily have turned much darker than it does and it’s a tribute to Craig that she lets it almost get there. It’s tense. We don’t know what this Nick is capable of. This is so real for so many teenage girls (and even grown women), who think they know the man they’re spending time with, only to have them turn violent on a dime.

While all this is happening her mom is freaking out because she doesn’t know where her daughter is and knows that she is upset. This gives us this great reveal of Nadine’s messy room. I love me a messy teenage room. My room was such a sty always. (It’s marginally better now).

Look at this glorious mess. Bless.

We then get some great scenes between Darian and Nadine. They are siblings at an age that can often be very trying. I remember fighting with my brother a lot when I was in high school. We were very close in age and both going through that awful self-centered angst at the same time. However, we discover that again part of what is causing the friction here is in Nadine’s self-centered existence, she has failed to see her brother for who he truly is. She see him as a jock, as the a popular kid, as the person who stole her best friend. What she fails to see is the burden he carried keeping their mom afloat in her grief. The pressure he feels to be there for her in a way Nadine has not realized their mother needs. They have a much-needed airing of each other’s grievances and as often happens, at first there is hurt feelings, but later comes comprehension and understanding.

Nadine’s apology to her brother for her behavior is so heartbreaking. She reveals her own feelings of self-hatred, which just fuels even worse behavior. We see that the mixture of grief and the general confusion of teenagedom has caused her to be unmoored, just as it has for her brother, and her mom. I particularly like the way this speech tackles some hard truths about what it’s like to be a teenage girl. To be so confused and how that confusion can lead you to hate yourself if you aren’t given some guidance to self-acceptance.

I’m just gonna leave this hug here.

Which brings us back to Erwin. You knew we were gonna get back to Erwin, that charmer. He’s a filmmaker and he’s invited Nadine to the debut of his film at their school’s film festival. As part of her growth, she learns how to be there during important times in other people’s lives – and to see that other people’s lives are important to her.

I love seeing Nadine’s reaction to Erwin’s film. She is so proud of his work. She is beginning to see how great it is to support others. To be there for others, the way you want to them to be there for you.

Nadine grows a lot throughout this film and as it ends you know she’ll head into her future with a much better sense of empathy for others, as well as for herself.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on March 8, 2019, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Veronica and I went to see this opening weekend. We both loved it so much. Veronica ended up seeing it again, and we own a copy of it. I loved so much of what you wrote about it. The cast. The story. The “R” rating freedoms. The awkward moments. The non-vilification of Nadine when she acts wrong (thank you for trusting the audience to have feelings about this and not have to be guided to dislike her actions). Teenage years are selfish. It’s part of the process, as is (hopefully) finding our way towards empathy and more understanding. I loved that particular journey in the film, one that often reminded me of the short-lived tv series My So-Called Life and the character Angela.

    I’m so glad you are doing these posts again!

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