I’m just some guy; I am not a mandatory reporter. Some of my students that I volunteer with appreciate this: they know they can speak rather freely around me and trust me to bet on their ability to live their life. And this is because I believe that friends should bet on each other instead of against each other.
I recently had a young woman who was a bit troubled: she was multi-ethnic in a WASP-oriented school, she was young-faced and adorable but trying to be taken seriously as an adult, and her dad was still disappointed that she wasn’t a boy. She was insanely over-performing in sports, speech, music, volunteering, academically, et cetera, but constantly under pressure to do more and do it all perfectly, performing both as fake WASP and with a mimicry of masculinity in pursuit of her father’s acceptance. She had a chronic feeling of awkwardness. At the point where she was both completely competent yet utterly lacking in confidence we connected and did some amazing work together.
She thankfully ruined The Edge of Seventeen for me.
The Edge of Seventeen, somehow running at 95% favorability on Rotten Tomatoes, is another entry in the sub-genre of “Woody Harrelson (Zombieland, The Hunger Games) mentors younger women” films. The film stars the next generation of Ellen Page, now named Hailee Steinfeld, as Nadine, a girl with no qualities except her looks, which she sabotages by cultivating an atrocious wardrobe to justify her lack of social standing in a categorically and unrealistically beautiful peerage. She grew up in the shadow of her slightly older but more mature brother and she resents him for it, so she spends the movie freaking out and being horrible to everybody after he hooks up with her best friend. The movie ends with her realizing that she’s a horrible person, and this makes everything okay so she can hook up with a the richest guy in her class, obviously.
There are several troubling factors in the composition of the film. Relevant to my attention to Harrelson is that his character is not reporting Nadine’s behavior when Nadine pointedly explains how she intends to commit suicide or shares her sexually explicit propositioning of her crush with him. He instead inappropriately mocks her for the benefit of the unsympathetic audience. The point may be that these behaviors aren’t abnormal and the kids will generally be alright, but it’s not what springs to mind. And I don’t think it’s normal; my students don’t regale me with their certainly self-destructive behaviors beyond the conventional dangers of merely being female on mass transit or the rare infliction of self-harm by shaving with shaking hands.
I’m thankful that my I can bet on my friends.
But Nadine has another problem: she’s empty. When I said she has no qualities, I meant that she does nothing–she is in no sports or other extracurriculars, she does not appear to volunteer her time or be otherwise employed, she is not even a particularly good student as she fails to turn in the one homework assignment in the movie in one scene and falls asleep in class in another. While I’m certain that many people in the target demographic sympathized with her awkwardness, I’ve never seen a teenager do as little with their life as Nadine does with hers. Despite a dearth of friends, she doesn’t appear to read anything, either, and this strikes me as bizarre. See, my awkward student read to give voice to her awkwardness; her reading of a innuendo-laden poem featuring her sharply declaring “I get off on Dicken[,]son” (there were no mandatory reporters listening) was just one crystallizing element she used to solidify her path, to find her affinities, to know that there would be a path, and that she wasn’t alone.
Is it fair to compare Nadine to my students? Probably not. My students are really quite good; that’s why I claim them as mine. But Nadine doesn’t even hold up against other pop-culture girls; antisocial outcasts Daria (exceptional student, plus reading and writing) and Jane (art and running) both did more than Nadine. Awkward girl Rachel starts a heavy metal band. And in a direct comparison Olive would run the table with Nadine. And Wichita? Nadine would get bitten and Wichita would blow Nadine’s head off. Even compared with her fictional peer group, Nadine comes up lacking; her happy ending with the rich boyfriend will have her merely playing muse to and cheering on his minor ambitions, not unlike how it would’ve been if Knives were actually the focal character in the not-recommended Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (but if you’ve seen it anyway, you know what I’m talking about).
Nadine asked Erwin what he wanted to do with his life, a question that she couldn’t even begin to answer. Even Buffy was able to come up with “All I want to do is graduate from high school, go to Europe, marry Christian Slater, and die,” and she gave that without the sage guidance of Woody Harrelson.
Finally, and getting back into the territory of nobody reporting anything, it’s a bit odd that Krista is spending the night with Blake and it doesn’t occur to anybody that she’s almost certainly telling her parents that she’s “staying the night at Nadine’s house,” which may be technically true, but also completely omits the relevant detail of who she’s fucking and thus counts as a lie, a lie that her closest ex-friend and a nearby parental-adult should both be fully aware of and surfacing to Krista’s would-be-concerned-if-they-knew parents. But nobody does. Perhaps Krista hasn’t actually had any parents since age 8. I mean, Erwin’s parents wandered off for several months in the middle of the school year, so why not? There’s a certain pernicious undertone here: that regardless of whether kids have their shit together (Erwin, Darian) or not (Nadine), adults can’t do anything but interfere until it’s past time for an intervention.
For the difficulties that were faced in Daria, Easy A, and even Boring Girls, the adults were not so disparaged.
On the one hand, this totally lets me off the hook so maybe I should be glad of it. On the other, it also totally devalues the position I’ve taken and the role that I play. So I take offense at it, as all of the big brothers and big sisters and other mentors that step up work on guiding kids into adulthood and being valuable participants in society may reasonably do.
The difficulty perhaps lies with the screenwriter: Dave White wrote of Kelly Fremon Craig’s other screenwriting credit, Postgrad, “It acts like the audience knows nothing about how humans behave or find jobs or keep them or have romantic relationships or exist in families,” and that seems to hold pretty true here as well. Maybe Kelly is projecting her insecurities onto Nadine; I can somewhat sympathize with that. It’s an easy gimmick to use and by the time you’re done editing and proofing you really will hate your main character to wish them that kind of wretchedness.
But at the end of the day, I’d rather my students passed by the cultural artifacts which lionize idleness and give awards not just to participants but to the mere spectators. I insist on more from them; they should be able to insist on more from their cultural representations.