The latest film to take on the teenage girl archetype is called The Edge of Seventeen, which was written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. If you read over the reviews you’ll see a number of critics praising the film for not falling into a stereotype. The A.V. Club says “it reclaims smart sensitivity in teen movies—emotional territory that sometimes feels like it’s been ceded to the occasional TV show,” and I agree to a certain extent. It definitely has its problems, but it does a good job of showing the everyday pain that many teenagers face without judging or belittling it in a negative way. I believe that a huge part of that has to do with sound.
This film uses silence in the most powerful ways possible. It doesn’t overstimulate the senses with sound in order to make it feel more shocking. There aren’t tons of loud musical numbers to make the audience feel riotous or sad. Our emotions are not dictated by the sound, but the lack of it because this is a movie of awkward pauses and little interruptions. In life, when you’re mad at your parents and you know you can’t say anything to make them see your side, you don’t run around screaming at them. Maybe you did when you were younger, but by 17 you’ve learned that that gets you nowhere. So you stare at them, crossed armed and upset knowing they will never understand the pain you’re feeling no matter how hard you try to explain it. That is exactly what the protagonist does on several occasions within this movie. Over and over again, her emotions were written across her face and tension hung in the silent space between her and her mother. Then, when she finally snapped, she did so with her actions, not her words. Instead of screaming at her mother, she took her mother’s car keys and drove herself home so that she could get away. How incredibly powerful that was as appose to yelling at her mother because, first off, I think we have all dreamt of doing the same thing when we need an escape from our parents, and second off, she didn’t do it to gain attention. That was very clear. It was a direct result of the pain she felt when her mother told her that her deceased father would be ashamed of how she’s turning out. It’s also important to note that the mother ran after her yelling for her to stop, but the protagonist did not say a word in return. The only way she answered was by carrying through with the car theft, thus putting her money where her mouth is and making the audience believe just how terrible she felt after her mother taunted her.
Many times throughout the film I found myself wishing the protagonist had said the perfect comeback; the one that would knock the person to their knees because they needed to understand the pain that they were causing her, but that never happened. Instead, she had a few outbursts now and then that were very unsatisfying and often times led to her kicking herself. As the movie went on I craved that perfect comeback even more with each insult thrown her way, and every time I didn’t get it, I gained more emotionally attached to what the protagonist was feeling. I felt the tension and frustration she felt because, unlike in most teen movies, neither of us got that big winning argument that made everyone realize why she felt the way she felt. I even left the theater upset and stifled because I still felt pent up with frustration. Many times she made little remarks to her brother, who would counter her and leave her reaching for something better to say, but often falling short. When she would sit in the classroom with her unforgiving teacher at lunch, she still could never win an argument. She constantly said she was going to kill herself and he would always call her bluff. I’m not so sure that’s the best way to handle that situation, but it worked for their dynamic. Every time she was beaten out in an argument, it became another moment someone in her life was unable to recognize or understand her depression. And I think that’s what hurt the most and made the audience side with her, even when it felt like she was a bit self-centered.
I would say the protagonist spent half the movie alone. Now, you can’t have dialogue when you’re alone, so you must rely on other triggers to reflect a character’s emotional status. Voice over was used every now and then, because yes this is still a teen movie, but many times she sat silently, trying to survive each moment. This reflects the internal screams that never seem to make it out of a teenager’s body. Sometimes, when you’re a teen, you spend so much of your time fighting. You fight for social status, for friends, for people to like you, for better grades, a better college acceptance, and it becomes exhausting. So much so that you spend time just sitting there, maybe licking an ice cream cone like this protagonist did, gazing off into the void because you need to take a second to shut down and be absent. That’s so incredibly real, but it’s so incredibly quiet, so often times teen movies turn to parties or big days of fun to show the protagonist blowing off steam, but in reality, blowing off steam is you, sitting by yourself, with glassy eyes.
The increased silence intensifies the weight of the words that are used. The audience feels every snide remark said to her and every time her mother tries to tame her with an extremely fake ‘sweet’ tone. And when her brother finally breaks his silence and tares her apart towards the end, it’s such a stark contrast between the quiet tones of the rest of the movie that the audience becomes as stunned as the protagonist is when she is put in her place. So, even though this gigantic turning point is done on a very minimal scale (just two siblings quarreling), because the sound is such a stark difference to their small fights in the past, it’s effective. It’s at that moment where we understand that the protagonist has spent so much effort willing people to understand her dissonance, that she has completely ignored the problems in other people’s lives. This is a normal realization that occurs in teen shows, but not so much in teen movies. Usually, it’s the other way around so that the protagonist wins out and everyone comes back to her saying they’re so sorry they didn’t realize all of these things she was going through and so on. This is different. This movie forces the protagonist to confront her own selfishness and gives her a chance to correct it, which surprisingly, she does. I think this shows an emotional maturity that other teen movies don’t and it is in this way that the writer gives credit to real life teens.
The biggest problem I had was the ending because even though she went through a lot of soul searching and she dealt with a lot of emotionally draining scenarios by herself, she still ends up finding her self-worth in a guy. This is the stereotypical ‘girl doesn’t like dorky guy as more than a friend, but dorky guy pines after her until she comes to the realization that the cool guy she likes is a jerk so eventually she ends up with dorky guy and everything is great.’ Yes, her choice to go out with him is an example of her finally making healthy choices for herself, but I think it was more harmful than helpful to the viewers. She found validation in him instead of within herself and to have that as a resolution is just playing in to the idea that a female, by herself, is not enough to be happy, which is a cop out.