The Edge of Seventeen: Nadine's real issue is not adolescence. (3100 words)
I’ve always disliked it when people make fun of teenagers or utter condescending generalities about them.
I believe that everything that is said about our youths and their supposed clumsiness, melancholy, oversensitivity and the way they’re driven by their hormones and all that kind of things, whether it might be accurate or not, is most of the time only used as a tool to silence them. Teenagers are kids who enter the world of adults and as such, they have a fresh, honest and critical point of view about it, that’s why we don’t want to hear it and need to discredit them. Not because they might be right, but because even when they’re wrong they still have the capacity to point out our dishonesty, our cowardice and our weaknesses and it hurts.
One thing I thus dislike in movies is the stereotype of the weird and whiny teenager who is made ridiculous as an indicator that his/her voice doesn’t count because he’s a teenager… even though actually, I don’t think that specific stereotype is often truly used. For exemple, in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing Missouri, Mildred’s daughter is a perfect overreacting funny teenager except that everything she says is perfectly weighed and meaningful. The guys from American Pie too are actually a lot more than idiots who want to get laid as soon as possible. Still, on the surface all these characters look like hollow stereotypes.
And so, I must say that while I was getting closer to the end of The Edge of Seventeen I started to feel quite unsettled by the fact that this intelligent movie seemed to be going for the most irritating conclusion, “she was upset and depressed because that’s what being a teenager is about.”
During the whole movie Nadine behaves very randomly and seriously hurts others while obviously being on the verge of hurting herself too. We want to know why and pretending that there’s no reason is as inane as writing 2+2=x therefore x=x.
And yet, the conclusion of Nadine’s downward spiral is quite anti-climactic. A teacher gives her a ride home and her brother tells her that he can’t cope with her erratic and aggressive behaviour anymore and that he too is in pain and struggling. That’s all. Her problem disappears and we’re never told what it was in the first place nor why it disappeared exactly.
Obviously, there’s the fact that her father died of a heart attack (I suppose) in front of her eyes while he was driving a car.
It works fine as an explanation of Nadine’s unhappiness, even more so when the last thing that she’s told before she starts getting better is “Get out of the car” by Mr. Bruner the nice teacher.
So, the case is closed. She had a close relationship with her dad and she is the one who struggles the most when it comes to going through the mourning process. She has to “get out of the car” where she is still locked up with her dying dad.
More, we’re even told that Nadine was always closer to her dad while her mother seemed to prefer Darian, her “perfect” brother. It’s only understandable that she should be the one who’s experiencing the greatest difficulties to recover from the father’s death and who feels worthless and inferior.
Unfortunately, if we take a closer look at how the movie is built and the story unfolds, it becomes quite visible that this interpretation doesn’t add up.
First, the events that are related to us take place four years after the father’s death.
Of course, Nadine could still be sad that her father died, but suddenly becoming incapable of coping with existence because of it makes no sense four years later. Plus, she never actually says anything like “I miss him so much.” There’s no “do you remember when dad would… ?” No flashbacks that would interrupt the course of things in order to underline that he’s still on Nadine’s mind.
More, when she eventually opens her mouth at the end what she says excludes the idea of the dad’s death being of any importance in the crisis she’s experiencing:
“I’m sorry for being a bitch tonight, and the past couple of weeks, and the past seventeen years before that.”
This works with the idea that she’s jealous of her brother but completely puts the dad’s death out of the picture. She didn’t say: “I’m sorry I’ve been a bitch since dad died,” or “for the past four years.”
“I know this isn’t any easier for you. I know that. I think some deranged part of me likes to think that I’m the only one with real problems… like that makes me special…”
Here we have the “I’m a teenager therefore I need to complain about stuff for no reason” but Nadine carries on and immediately contradicts the idea:
“You know ever since we were little, I would get this feeling like I’m floating outside my body, looking down on myself and I hate what I see. How I’m acting, the way I sound. And I don’t know how to change it. And I’m so scared that this feeling is never gonna go away.”
This is not a little narcissistic teenager who blows her psychological pain up out of all proportion. She is suffering.
However, she is not suffering from her dad’s death nor does she confess her jealousy to Darian. There’s no “you’re so perfect” or “Mum always loved you more and I feel useless.” This final secret honest confession cancels the two most obvious interpretations of the story: Witnessing her dad’s death, feeling inferior to her brother who is the mother’s favourite kid.
And these two elements couldn’t explain Nadine’s capricious behaviour when she was a kid and wanted to stay in the car or her strange urge to hurt people around her. And if her problem is that she hates herself, why was the “get out of the car” intrigue developed ? What’s the point of Mr. Bruner’s character, the father figure of substitution ? Why is Nadine shown getting out of the car when her dad has his heart attack ? Of course there’s a difference between the literal and the metaphorical meaning but if the movie was about Nadine’s incapacity to recover from her father’s death, the scene would have shown her staying in the car.
The list of inconsistencies is long and for a good reason: the true story behind The Edge of Seventeen is the one of a girl who was sexually abused by her father when she was a kid.
The trick is that the father isn't presented as manipulative, malevolent, prone to anger or despiseful that which is uncommon for a sexually abusive father (in cinema). There's no doubt he loves his daughter. The problem is that he also is in love with her.
First thing, her description of how she feels: “You know ever since we were little, I would get this feeling like I’m floating outside my body, looking down on myself and I hate what I see. How I’m acting, the way I sound. And I don’t know how to change it. And I’m so scared that this feeling is never gonna go away.”
It’s not grief, it’s not jealousy, it’s certainly not teenage years, it’s having been used as a sex partner when you were too young to have a grasp at what was going on and then automatically suppressed the memory of what happened into your subconscious. What’s left is this feeling of disgust for yourself… (unless she actually remembers it that which doesn’t change the problem).
Then, there’s my 19th clue of a subtext, the lying narrator. At the beginning of the movie Nadine tells us about her childhood starting with her reluctance to go to school when she was seven years old. We’re already not talking about adolescence anymore.
She describes her mother as being Darian’s number one fan although what’s happening on screen actually contradicts this statement. Darian shouts “bye” and it takes the mother about three seconds to answer “bye sweetheart” as she isn’t paying attention. We’re really far from the behaviour of a fanatic clingy mother.
Then the father goes “Ok boss lady, see you tonight.” Nadine crosses her legs and looks in another direction. Her mother gets off the car in order to force her out but Nadine locks her door.
Even though I don’t think a seven year old girl can make that kind of joke, the scene plays on the ambiguity of the sentence: “boss lady” could refer to the mother. Nadine pretends that her father is actually asking his wife to get out of the car. Then she tries to lock herself inside the vehicle with him and ignores her mother. The voice over describes “we could say that my mother and I weren’t exactly pees in a pod.” The thing is, there’s absolutely nothing on screen to support that idea, even more so when it’s 17 yo Nadine’s voice that we hear. She should be aware by that time that her mother’s behaviour was perfectly understandable and measured while the father wasn’t acting properly. But no, she describes this situation as her mother and her not getting on well. And the discrepancy between what we see and what is said carries on:
“The only person who could handle either one of us was Dad. Dad had a merely impossible task, having to manage us both.”
Neither Nadine nor Darian are seen crying and when the girl observes her mother crushed by sorrow, the memory is blurred, unreal.
Also, this "coming into focus" is Nadine's birth as an individual, beforehand she was just an extension of her dad. Her mother crying into her brother's arm is the result of her existense, or at least it's how she's going to experience life from now on.
There’s nothing on screen that justifies the idea that there was a problem between Mona and Nadine. Sure, Nadine seems to have a problem with her mother, but there’s nothing to justify it. More, Tom solves the problem with an insignificant joke. “If someone is mean to you, fart into their bagpacks.” How is that going to help ? Why is 17 yo Nadine telling us that she had a problem with her mom while, seemingly unvolontarily, giving us a very unflattering depiction of her dad. Also, “having to manage us both” puts Mona and Nadine on the same foot and can be understood on a sexual level too. Remember, it’s 17 yo Nadine speaking.
Then there’s this: “I wish you were small.” Nadine is in love with her Dad, Oedipus complex (Electra for girls) or not.
But quickly the voice over corrects: “Then I at least would have one person to have lunch with.” Older Nadine camouflages her feelings for her dad. She doesn’t want the audience to realise that she wanted to marry her daddy. Why does she want to hide the fact that she went through a very common stage of development ?
At school Nadine is bullied by three girls: “Nobody likes you. You suck and you’re gonna get aids.” I’ll come back to this.
Then something very interesting happens while she is hitting a fence with a wood stick, the 17 years old voice-over becomes the thoughts of the little girl until it’s interrupted by Krista’s entrance.
This means that 17 yo Nadine is still very close to 7 yo Nadine.** She can’t feel the ten years gap and it’s only Krista who’s allowed her to grow up. Krista is time for Nadine, her friend is the sole element of her life that allows her interiority not to be timeless and therefore ageless (which is a consequence of being the love/sex partner of one of your parents).
**"You're only young once... is it over yet ?"
Nadine grows up and introduces the day of her dad’s death with: “Some extremely fucked up shit happened.” However, we do not immediately witness the tragedy, instead, we’re shown Nadine being appalled by her resemblance with Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite and the dad’s heart attack happens in the following scene.
Very spontaneously we’re going to associate the “Some extremely fucked up shit happened” with the dad’s death, but taken literally, it’s only the hair that is a problem.
Truly, the “fucked up shit” is the dynamic behind the two scenes. Nadine is thirteen, she’s becoming a teenager, she’s becoming an adult, she’s not her dad’s little girl anymore. Untied/long hair for women is often used as a signifier of sexual readiness/maturity. (And there's also acne). She is now ready for sex and her dad is going to ask for more than what he had been asking for until that moment.
When they’re shown sharing secrets as little girls. Krista talks about seeing her grand-father’s wiener and crying. Nadine answers with her mother's kleptomania. Kleptomania arises from a severe frustration: Nadine’s dad doesn’t make love to his wife. (That's also why the start of a new school year makes her check her hair, she is anxious about aging because her husband makes her feel undesirable).
Here, we could consider that if Nadine was sexually abused by her father, she should outdo Krista’s remark by explaining what happened to her, except that the movie doesn’t work this way and has already introduced a few elements that explain her answer.
First, saying that her mother suffers from kleptomania, in the context, is a metaphor for “my dad satisfies his sexual urges with me.” She stays on topic.
Then, there’s the “you gonna get aids” of the bullies at school. That sentence is comical because we understand it as: They don’t know about sex because they are little girls, they can’t know about how you can catch Aids because they are little girls, they most probably heard this sentence in a very tensed situation, thought it was an insult or a threat and thus reuse it completely out of context, because they are little girls.
However, if we consider that Nadine was abused by her dad -and it happens, little girls can be abused sexually- and talked about it at school, then these three girls are most probably only reacting to what she told them. She sucks (meaning she is uncool) and she’s going to get aids as a punishment for what she said she did. It’s not unlikely that they know that Aids is a sexually transmittable disease.
So, now that she’s been bullied at school for what she did with her dad, Nadine is certainly not going to talk about it ever again, and certainly not to her sole friend. That’s a good explanation for why she’s not telling Krista.
Then there’s the fact that if he abuses her, the first thing that her dad told her is that it’ll be their secret. And he does suspiciously appear quickly after Krista made her remark about her grand-pa’s wiener.
And finally, there’s the fact that Nadine isn’t aware that there’s something wrong about what’s happening. Maybe she doesn’t like it very much but she’s certainly miles away from considering that her dad is evil or abusive. She is not seeking help and therefore, if it has to remain secret, so be it. If it makes her a monster in the eyes of the world, she can forget about the world.
When she refuses to go out of the car because she has to go to school, it is triggered by the fact that she considers herself a rival to her mother. She wants to stay in the car with her dad. Eventually, it’s the mother who’ll be locked in and forced to watch Nadine and Tom have a little conversation through the window. She’s a witness of their special relationship. Also, it has to be noted that she didn’t get out of the car for Darian contrary to Tom for Nadine.
And so, after the “fucked up shit” scene AKA Nadine is now a young woman, she carries on telling us the story of that fateful day: “That night I picked up some cheeseburgers with my dad”
In the car, they listen to the radio. Nadine doesn’t want to hear the song, the dad puts it back and start singing. The song is about a madman madly in love with a woman who cannot save him etc… it perfectly suits the “sexually abusive father” scenario. A second before Nadine was complaining about not being pretty and Tom was consoling her with “you have my love.”
As this is still Nadine’s narration, we cannot exactly know what happened in the car. In reality, the dad could very well have had a heart attack while Nadine was giving him a fellatio. I’m not asserting this, I’m just saying that as Nadine is hiding the truth from us, we cannot know exactly what happened. One thing is for sure though, she got off the vehicle.
If the problem resurfaces when Nadine is seventeen it’s because her libido finally appears (it’s not uncommon to be late on that matter when someone has a traumatic history). She wants to have a boyfriend and to make love. But during the whole movie, most of her sexual behaviours or jokes are completely inappropriate. She is completely lost.
First, she is attracted to her brother. Then, she is horribly jealous when he sleeps with Krista and behaves as if she considered Krista to be her girlfriend. She compares their relationship with her dating Krista’s father. She violently opposes their love, even though I believe that she actually got sick and self-deprecating in front of Krista in order to push her towards her brother. She has very contradictory desires and takes very contradictory initiatives.
On the phone she makes jokes about her mother having sex with a man and forces her brother to picture it. She thinks that Darian needs to detach himself from Mona in order to become interested in girls (that which might be true as both him and Nadine seem to be slowly becoming homosexual).
Then there’s the guy she wants to have sex with at the pet shop. She perceives sexuality as animalistic. When swimming in the pool with Erwin, she asks him very clumsily whether he wants to have sex with her before retracting herself.
She invites a guy in a car in order to have sex with him, and again changes her mind when he starts touching her. (And she makes a remark about that suggests that she has a problem with the car because either it is the same one as her father's or on the contrary, a different one).
She complains that her mother always talks about Tom saying “my husband” and never “your dad.” Darian reproaches his mother for behaving towards him as if he was his dad.
The movie tells us the story of all the things that Nadine is going to have to go through in order to learn what she couldn’t learn because her dad abused her and to recover from it. Barriers, approaches, non-acceptable/acceptable behaviors, feeling loved, feeling supported, understanding that her mother actually loves her, understanding that men are not just sex objects etc...
The thing that I find particularly astonishing is that it’s actually never said that her father abused her and that intrigues me quite a lot. Erwin makes a short film about saving Nadine from a monster. This is the closest the movie gets from telling us everything. Nadine never says it but still, I think that at the end of the story, she’s recovered.
The monster isn't strikingly malevolent, he's still using his power over Nadine in order to satisfy his toxic and alienating desires. She is in a cage.
Anyway, I just wanted to point at the fact that both “the impossible grief” and the “I’m jealous of my brother” scenarios were both unlikely whereas the “sexually abusive father” one worked perfectly.
And that this movie is certainly not about a whiny whimsical teenager.