On The Edge of Seventeen and Something Bigger: The Reclaiming of the Female Film Protagonist

 

Nadine Franklin is having a rough year.

 

Though 2016 has been a difficult one, arguably for much of the general population, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen reminds us that every year is a rough one, when you’re in high school. Beyond the agony of pimples, romance troubles, and friend drama, however, The Edge of Seventeen paints (or splashes, really) a bigger picture- one of the recent twenty-tens trend of the female director-screenwriter combo breaking their female protagonists and their costars out of the boxes that a century of cinema has placed them in. Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen joins the ranks of Lake Bell’s 2013 film In a World… and Gillian Robespierre’s 2014 indie hit Obvious Child, making a (somehow still) bold statement that perhaps the people who can best write and direct female characters and actors, are in fact, women themselves.

The protagonists of these films swear, and not in a huge outburst kind of way, but a slip-into-multiple-conversations-daily type of way. They go to the bathroom, and not just in a drunken haze or to take a pregnancy test. They have dislikable moments, and make you want to sink into your theater seat as if it were quicksand. They are far from perfect, and the filmmakers make damn sure by the end of the film that the audience knows it, too.

In a drizzly Oregon town of Craig’s creation, seventeen-year-old Nadine is struggling when her best friend from childhood starts dating her twin brother- the Gallant to Nadine’s Goofus. Sound familiar? Sound like similar plots have been seen before in the oft-dreaded “coming of age” comedy? I thought so too (and especially as a twin myself, I’m often wary of the good twin/bad twin trope). But the trailer is misleading in capturing the true tone of the film- it’s a coming of age film in a world where coming of age (especially for teenage girls) is harder than ever. The film has humor, absolutely, and Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s dry, deprecating teacher brings many laughs with and at Nadine’s expense.

But The Edge of Seventeen has a rawness that so many of teenage-targeted films fail to capture, Craig’s script captures these emotions with unflinching honesty; this is the mastery of Hailee Steinfeld’s acting at work. Oscar nominee and teen pop star hybrid, Steinfeld plays Nadine as awkward, but not in the “cute” way- she’s full of biting comments and social anxiety, is quick to blame, and at times, is quite cruel. Craig doesn’t shy away from the anger of the teenager girl, she instead embraces it as one who has lived through it- teenage girls do, after all, have a lot to be understandably angry about.

On the other side of the country, mid-twenties NYC stand-up comedian Donna (Jenny Slate) gets dumped, makes jokes on stage about it about it, hooks up with a guy “so Christian, he’s like, a Christmas tree” and then gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. This is Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. There is no question, in the film, if Donna will have the procedure, the plot revolves around whether or not she will tell the nice guy she “played Russian roulette with [her] vagina” with, as her best friend and closest confidante Nellie, puts it.

Back on the West Coast, and not too far from Nadine, but a dozen years older, In a World’s Carol (Lake Bell as director and actor) is the daughter of a famous voice actor and struggling to make her own name in the business in LA, though, as her father puts it, “let’s face it- the industry does not crave a female sound… I’m not being sexist, that’s just the truth”.

In some ways, all three women tell one story, and show the growth, through the ages, of how young women can accurately be portrayed in cinema, when given the right actresses and filmmakers. All three films easily pass the Bechdel test, despite all three having romantic comedy subplots and more than one romantic interest. Craig is blunt about Nadine’s misdirection in falling for Nick, a just-out-of-juvie senior who takes Nadine out for a ride in his car. She comments on the nice waterfront view, and then the script has him park the car in front of a waste disposal container instead.

The jokes are subtle digs at the contradictions and ultimate mystery of being a teenager in the modern day, yet never is offensive to the “elusive” creature of the teenage girl. Nadine has a negative view of the world, and is angry at it for letting her father die and at Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) for falling for Darien (Blake Jenner) – unwilling to believe that Krista could have both siblings, and selfishly insisting she pick only one. Nadine is smart, and that’s what makes her cruelty pack a punch- she knows where to hurt the people who’ve hurt her, and she’s not going anywhere until she gets her chance to swing at them- even if it isn’t entirely justified. In a painful poolside scene, she asks her friend Erwin if he “wants to have sex” and then pauses for effect, followed by laughter and declaration of the joke. (So often female characters are punished horrifically for their cruelty, while reckless teenage males can go unpunished. Nadine grows greatly in the course of the film, she learns to apologize and to fix her wrongdoings, but is not humiliated and directly punished for her actions. What happens to her in the latter half of the film is a result of her actions, not a “punishment”- and the film also distinguishes that she’s not the only one to blame. Her issues with Erwin meanwhile, are worked out in a healthy manner- through art and apology, discussion and addressing the issue head on).

Robespierre’s Donna, meanwhile, may be a self-admitted “menorah on the top of the tree, that burns it down”, with bitter feelings towards and even moments of stalking her ex-boyfriend. Yet like Nadine turning to her cynical but surprisingly supportive history teacher, in her darkest moments Donna turns to her parents (creating a new relationship with her mother in the process), and closest friends for support.

Similarly, Carol turns to her sister for support (they even have a phrase for it- #sistercode), even after she inadvertently and unintentionally almost sabotages her sister’s marriage.

Bell, Robespierre, and Craig feature strong and genuine female relationships with their protagonists- Nadine to Krista, Donna to Nellie and her mom, Carol to her sister Dani. And these relationships defy the male gaze, dare to go where films by male directors worry about and avoid going, using physicality, blunt honesty, and still taboo topics of how a woman can or should act on film.

The first three minutes of Obvious Child mention buttholes and vaginal discharge, and include fart noises by Slate on stage. She swaps shirts in a dressing room in a very not sexy scene with her friend, though there’s a lot of skin shown on both of them. Slate is seen shirtless at least three times, yet every time she has armpit hair lingering, and is wearing a plain and practical nude bra. Like Nadine and Krista early in the film, Nellie and Donna are very physically affectionate, crawling into each other’s laps during dark times and blatantly telling each other without fear of judgement who they want to have sex with in brighter ones. In a World… dares to have two male character be so misogynistic in every conversation they have with one another, that they become false caricatures of their gender- something so many female characters and actors are faced with daily. Almost every male figure in the film is portrayed as ridiculous, in some way, yet the women are too. The characters of Bell’s film aren’t afraid to live real life on screen- their conversations are drowned out a bit by kitchen noises, they verbally acknowledge painfully awkward silences filled with tension, they call their sibling while sitting on the toilet.

The scripts of these female talent whirlwind films feature realistic dialogue and aren’t afraid to go beyond the sphere of their approximately two hours. There are references to vague stories about bell peppers and grandmothers, and jokes you never quite understand, purely because they’re inside jokes of the characters, and you haven’t known them their whole lives. They live separate from you, you don’t exist to them, you’re only given a short window of insight into their world and then you must leave. These films make you feel like even after you walk out of the theater, the characters still live on.

A problem with so many female-audience focused films is the relatability factor. And sure, Steinfeld is hardly an ugly duckling, and the harping on her odd clothing choices seems a bit repetitive, reminding us of how quirky she is. But she gets pimples, Donna farts endlessly, and Carol’s hair is more often than not a complete mess. Above all, Nadine is a teenage girl, Donna a twenty-something, Carol a genuine thirty-year old, and they’re all real ones at that. Nadine vomits in a toilet after getting drunk, and falls asleep on the bathroom floor, in an incredibly unglamorous way. (Krista takes care of her throughout the ordeal). Halfway through the film, she enters a tiny TCBY bathroom, sits down on the toilet, and pees, as she has a mock-conversation with god. With the actual noise of her urinating in the background, in this scene no more than sixty seconds long, Nadine asks him why he’s always let her down- followed with a shot of her realizing there’s no toilet paper left on the roll.

These filmmakers do not shy away from the grittier, sadder, grosser parts of life either. There are mentions of Carol and Dani’s mom overdosing on purpose. We see, in a flashback, Nadine’s father die and her casually, comfortably mention taking pills to battle her depression, and Nellie announces to Donna that she’s going to drop a “dookie” while they spend the two minutes awaiting the pregnancy test results, in again, a closet-sized bathroom. (I find it amusing but also not surprising that all three of these films feature many a bathroom scene- showing a real part of real women’s lives- something that you never see, despite all the male peeing in the wilderness and discussions over urinals we get in Hollywood). Whispering to herself “Don’t be awkward, socialize” in a bathroom at a party she has no desire to be at, Nadine’s heartbreaking vulnerability is a trait in all of us, male or female, that Steinfeld nails better than any teenage actor in recent memory. Yet at the same time, we feel for her brother Darian and for Krista, for Nadine’s unfairness and way she pins the blame on anyone but herself. By the end of the film, I was pleasantly surprised to see Darian fully fleshed out, and found myself sympathizing with him as well as his sister. Robespierre and Bell’s films too- regardless of how small a role, the script puts in a great effort to make the audience feel as if we really know a little about themselves and how they see the world by the end credits.

The Edge of Seventeen may very well join the ranks of relatable, well-acted teenage anthem films, like Juno, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and even earlier, the creations of John Hughes (whom Craig cites as an influence). But more importantly, the film crosses genres, like Obvious Child and In a World…, and isn’t afraid to show the darker sides of coming of age, romance, stand-up comedy, family and friend relationships. These filmmaker’s films are relatable because they too were or are the age of their protagonists, and can fight against the male gaze and describe what it’s really like to be a woman in America like no one else.

Yet if relatability and the genuine nature of the character’s experiences are what drive this type of film, there is something to be said in the valid concern that these films, made by white women and featuring mostly white actors, are not as inclusive as they should be. (The Edge of Seventeen’s Erwin, played by excellent newcomer Hayden Szeto, is Chinese Canadian, however, a huge step in the classic role of a love-interest). There’s still a long way to go in accurate, intersectional female representation, but In a World…, Obvious Child, and The Edge of Seventeen prove that not only can female directors and screenwriters inspire movie-goers (myself included), but that they can inspire each other- these films were, after all, only made in the last four years.

I can’t wait to see the bathroom scenes, best-friend relationships, realistic romance, and fart jokes still to come.

 


Lauren is a cinema studies student in her final year of university (and is more than a little stunned at that fact). Based in Boston, she spends her time drinking earl grey tea, pretending she knows how to take photographs, and over-analyzing every movie she sees (with a few impassioned arguments in defense of her favorite fictional characters, here and there). Sunbeams, falling leaves, watching old movies, and Harry Potter make her happy (and she hopes you have beautiful things that make you happy too). You can find her on twitter (@labackus) and instagram.

 


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