In the premiere episode of Daria, Daria Morgendorffer is placed into a special class for students with low self-esteem. When berated by her parents for being a kid of such determinedly antisocial qualities, she states, “I don’t have low self-esteem. I have low esteem for everybody else.” But, that becomes the big joke as she uses that pointed sharp wit to mask her low self-esteem and her wondering why she can’t be cool like her sister, Quinn, the shiny happy popular one.
The Edge of Seventeen is an update of Daria. More specifically, it’s an update of Daria Season 4, (aka The Tom Sloane Season). Daria has been replaced by Nadine (Hailey Steinfeld), an outsider marked by weird chunky clothing and flat brown hair. Having been picked on since elementary school, she now wields a cruel wit and her outsider image as weapons to stab anybody who threatens to piece through the high brick walls she constructed to prevent anybody from coming in or getting out. The list of people allowed inside those walls is very short: her father (now deceased) and her best friend Krista.
The problems all start when Krista fucks her perfect brother Darian (generically handsome Blake Jenner). Tall, muscular, smiley, and part of the school’s “in” crowd, Nadine has always seen Darian as one of those overaccomplished assholes who would completely ignore her if they weren’t blood related. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is no help, being a frazzled single mother stretched to the max by her romantic searching for a new husband, her day job, and her resentful daughter. When Nadine’s sole friend hooks up with her closest enemy, all hell breaks loose.
Writer and First-Time Director Kelly Fremon Craig understands her characters within inches of their lives. Each character is an intimate, complicated figure pinging off each other with believable volatility. Many teenagers only see the world through their own experience, and that’s the ultimate foil of everybody here. These three characters are so obsessed with themselves that they can’t see past the ends of their nose. Darian refuses to acknowledge how his dating Nadine’s best friend is creating chaos. Despite being best friends for 10 years, Krista refuses to see how her transcending the cliques of her school has any effect on Nadine. And, Nadine refuses to see anything, least of all why anybody would think she’s such a prick. They’re all so self-conscious but also selfish. And, yet, so human.
It’s unfortunate that Ms. Craig kind of shits the bed for the finale. Admittedly, this is a problem with film vs television. In television, writers have the room to allow characters to change on their own for hours of screen time and weeks of real time. The culmination of Daria‘s Season 4 (Dye! Dye! My Darling!), where Tom leaves Jane for Daria, is the culmination of weeks of character change as Jane and Daria grew more distant, Jane and Tom started separating, and Daria and Tom grew closer and closer together. The finale of The Edge of Seventeen is more like a reel change. It’s fast, sudden, and, worst of all, unearned.
Don’t let that warning deter you. 85% of the movie is one of the best teen dramas I’ve seen in years. It’s solipsistic, critical of its own solipsism, and yet totally dependent on that solipsism for narrative purposes. It almost falls into the solipsistic trap of Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, where the character is so self-absorbed that making a movie about him/her, and only him/her, that the underdevelopment of the side characters are a narrative necessity to stay true to the character. If you look around the edges, there are a lot of characterizations for the side characters (except Krista because, I guess, fuck her), even if their ultimate narrative purpose serves Nadine’s character arc. Touching upon the destructive effects of grief and bullying with echoes of character development ringing down the hallways, Kelly Fremon Craig and Hailey Steinfeld have created a character for the ages.