The Edge of Seventeen’s Nadine is a character at war with herself. In one scene, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), nauseous from a night of binge drinking, leans over a toilet bowl. She mumbles, “I had the worst thought, I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.” Usually, in teen dramas, people Nadine’s age drink at stylized house parties. Instead, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig depicts Nadine and her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) content to be together.
However, Nadine will soon be at war with herself and with Krista. Following the evening of teenage drinking, Krista begins a relationship with Nadine’s older perfect brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). In response, Nadine flirts with self-destruction as well as classmate Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto). The Edge of Seventeen has the kind of plot that can push a film into either of two categories: cliché driven drivel or a nuanced portrait of adolescence. The Edge of Seventeen prefers the latter and finds both its head and its heart in Nadine.
The Edge of Seventeen manages to draw the line between stereotypical teenage angst and depression. It’s at once a practical concern and a narrative one. Hair-trigger moods and hysterical theatrics are par for the course in depicting teenage angst. Teen angst is separated from depression by the intensity, duration, and domain of the behavior and emotions.
Nadine’s feelings are intense. We first meet Nadine at her most theatric. She barges in on her history teacher, Mr. Bruner – Woody Harrelson at his peak sardonic – having lunch to say, “Look I don’t want to take up a ton of your time, but I’m going to kill myself. I just thought someone should know.” She wants to see if her statement elicits any response. Mr. Bruner, in turn, reads his “mock” suicide note chastising her for taking up his lunch hour with her suicide announcement. Nadine looks on in annoyance. The film then spends its remaining acts showing the build-up to the exchange.
Some have criticized the conversation between Nadine and Mr. Burner as invalidating Nadine’s depression. They point to the exchange as ignoring the seriousness of teen suicide and depression. However, this view is inherently shortsighted. Mr. Bruner’s reaction is not meant to undercut Nadine’s threats. It’s an equally jarring statement meant to counter Nadine’s ferocity with a ferocity all its own. Nadine’s response to the fake note is a wry smile. Mr. Bruner knows something that many with depression know, sometimes when you’re sadder than sad, falling into hysterics is the only way to feel something. In a haze of “I want to watch the world burn,” you strike a match and hope someone is angry enough to pour the gasoline. It’s an unhealthy, unproductive action but it happens nonetheless. Anger done raw is better than dull sadness.
The Edge of Seventeen nails the fact that depression is not the absence of emotion it is the dominance of one emotion above all others and in doing so it dulls the entire range of emotion. Nadine threatening suicide in this conversation isn’t real contemplation. Her plans are comedic in their ridiculousness. No, Nadine is pinching herself to make sure she’s still alive. Mr. Bruner is subverting her expectations to ensure her that she is, and will be for some time.
The duration of Nadine’s emotional spiral is built within the narrative. Depression differs from general teen angst in its duration. Depression can take hold of one’s life for weeks or months. Angst is fleeting. Our one brief glimpse of Nadine at her best comes early in the film, presumably before Krista’s relationship with Darian sets Nadine off. We see her and Krista being the witty, symbiotic pair that the opening scenes of their childhood promised us. We see them share private jokes and funny quips. It’s a generic shot of teenage friendship as we all hope to remember it. Nadine with Krista in this scene is teen life without the B reel. However, this is short-lived. The Nadine that the narrative follows is not the Nadine trading explicit one-liners about Nick (Alexander Calvert) the Petland employee she lusts after. Instead, we see her sullen, sad, and combative. We see depression Nadine existing for weeks. Depression Nadine falls asleep in class, watches TV lazily in the living room, and calls Erwin a “really old man.” We see Nadine behaving badly.
Nadine’s behavior throughout the film is to watch someone acting out beyond the bounds of general angst. If a teenager talks back to her mother that is normal. If a teenager alienates her best friend, a potential friend, and her teacher that’s depression. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stated, “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not, and often we call a man cold when he is only sad.” Nadine is cold. She threatens to tell all of Facebook that her mother plucks her nipple hairs in response to her mother’s suggestion that she and Krista drive to school together. Nadine forces her best friend Krista to chose between herself and Darian in the hallway in between classes. She verbally assaults Mr. Bruner by mocking his baldness and salary. Nadine is a character that shouldn’t be likable. She’s moody and tense. She says horrible things. Her reaction to even passive slights is volcanic. Nadine is a hyperbole and a half. However, she is also proof of the adage that hurt people, hurt people. She lashes out in response to things that highlight and deepen her unhappiness.
Nadine’s treatment in the narrative consists of one antidepressant (though the scene in which her and Erwin discuss her taking it is earnest) and a heartfelt midnight talk with her brother. In the scene with Darian, Nadine does what the most effective treatments for depression do, she talks about it. She airs her feelings and fears to her brother. In that moment, the two bond. As much as Nadine has been suffering through her depression Darian too has been suffering. Their mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) hasn’t managed to fully stand on her own feet since her husband’s death. She’s got her own issues to resolve. Mona depends on her children to be her support system, specifically Darian, and its causing the tension that Nadine feels. Mona has relied unhealthily on her son Darian to co-parent his sister. This sibling co-parenting has created a dynamic in which Nadine is set apart from her brother and its bred resentment. The major conflict is then resolved by an honest exploration of the dynamics of the family. It makes sense given that Nadine and Darian’s father, Tom (Eric Keenleyside) was the catalyst to the family’s further dissent into dysfunction. In the end, the dynamic between the family shows that Nadine is not alone in inner turmoil. Everyone in the Franklin family has a challenge ahead of them.
The Edge of Seventeen validates the feelings of the viewer. It acknowledges that little voice in everyone’s head that screams that they are unworthy of the things they want. For some, that voice gets silenced. For others, its the dominant cry in their mind. What Nadine’s journey does is let the audience know that falling into the abyss of those feelings is a valid experience that needs to be talked about openly and honestly. In the end, that is how Nadine recovers and how many like her forge ahead everyday.