There are two established golden eras for the teen movie: the late ’80s, featuring Say Anything, Heathers, and all the many John Hughes classics; and the late ’90s to early aughts, bookended by She’s All That and Mean Girls. Since then, the genre — like many other types of movies featuring real humans as opposed to robots or puke-green mutants or whatever — has been in decline.
The Edge of Seventeen, out Friday, is making a bid to revive the teen movie, and, by any definition, it’s a solid one, a proper descendant of Hughes. Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine is a great awkward, relatable teen narrator. The film hits all the tropes: She goes to a house party, she has a crush, she has a meltdown, she has a nurturing-yet-borderline-inappropriate relationship with a quirky teacher (Woody Harrelson). It even manages to include just the right amount of social media and computer usage, rather than going all “cool hacker teen” just for the sake of appealing to the youth. Truly, it’s a charming, heartfelt tale about coming of age during the time of red Solo cups and lockers.
But for all its charm, The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t avoid the main problem with teen movies now: They are all just a little bit boring. The Duff? Well-meaning but boring. The Fault in Our Stars? Extremely, deeply sad and also a little boring? Vampire Academy? Having to fight vampires was a delightful twist, but still: boring.
It’s not that teens don’t have compelling problems anymore — love, friendship, and obtaining liquor without an ID are eternally fascinating — or even that social media is the enemy of a good movie. It’s just that things have gotten a bit … safe. The parties are lamer, the nerds are cooler, the emotional climaxes and resolutions are so much more rational. So let’s use The Edge of Seventeen as a case study. Here’s what made it boring — and what bedevils all teen movies in the Instagram Age:
There are no weird porcelain figurines broken at house parties …
… ditto for fertility vases, china dolls, and whatever strange collectible grandmothers ordered off the television in the ’80s and then gave as Christmas presents. At movie house parties now, all of these creepy, fragile things are very safe. And what is a teen house party without a valuable object to break and replace? Sure, there’s a house party in Edge of Seventeen, but it’s not destructive. There’s a mutual cute-top appreciation society, some beer pong, and the slight sting of rejection, and then someone calls their mom to pick them up. (Their mom!) Bring back collectibles! I would watch 45 minutes of stoned teens trying to superglue a Fabergé Egg back together.
There is nothing to bump to.
Some truly great music has come off of soundtracks to teen movies: Can’t Hardly Wait, Clueless, Drive Me Crazy (Britney Spears and the Donnas!) all yielded soundtracks that are still fully listenable — “Graduate” by Third Eye Blind is still very relevant to my life, as is “(You Drive Me) Crazy” by Britney Spears. In contrast, the Edge of Seventeen trailer, featured Howie Day’s cover of the Beatles’ “Help!” Howie Day wasn’t a good option for teen movies in 2004, and that was when Howie Day was a thing! Where’s the makeout anthem?
There are no real mean girls, mean boys, or any other instrument of alienation.
In a teen movie, everyone is too young to realize their greatest enemies are themselves, so there must be an adversary — a hierarchy, a clique, a jock, a queen bitch, something. What else are you going to do, study? The Edge of Seventeen is a quiet battle between Nadine and her own angst.
The fro-yo is not joyous.
As a teen, you’ve got a lot of time to fill, and not a lot of ways to fill it. Snacks — ordering a pizza with your friends, eating Doritos while you gab, sitting in food courts or diners — are a great way to spend that time. Snacking is so fun. Specifically getting fro-yo, which is a joyous occasion to be shared by best friends or lovers in moments of celebration and the happiest times of your life. Somehow this teen movie managed to make fro-yo a sad, dull affair: Nadine sits alone and eats it in abject defeat. I think she opted for vanilla and only little M&M’s. It’s gone from Fro-Yo! to fro-yo.
The clothes are not aspirational …
Nadine wears jean shorts over tights with high socks and wedge sneakers. It was horrible, but it was Very Real Teen. I understand there was intent (it signaled her outsider, misunderstood, alt-teen status) — but there was no aspirational dressing to be found anywhere! Even the popular girls looked like they had shopped at Banana Republic.
… which means there is no makeover scene.
The makeover scene is crucial, even if morally questionable; teens cannot become who they are without it. (Whatever happened to Cher’s red Alaïa, goddamnit?) If there were something even resembling a “makeover scene” in Edge, it was when Steinfeld was trying to select an outfit for a date. Which, OK, that’s sort of fun. Except in this instance, she nervously tries on every piece of clothing she already owns by herself, makes a huge mess in her room (her mom was so mad) and then settles on a sundress I suspect she’d worn about 100 times. In a coming-of-age comedy, teens need to move from “this is the person I am” to “this is the person I would like to be,” and that usually requires the right pair of jeans, shirt, dress, skirt, etc. Nadine needs to get to the mall. If you can’t afford new clothes, steal your mom’s credit card — which would also be a more interesting plotline, just something to consider.
The crush isn’t in a band.
I know. I know! Not every crush in a teen movie can be Freddie Prinze Jr. But did the pouty-lipped recipient of all the teen desire and lust in Edge have to be some guy who works in a pet shop? And I’m not talking small, quirky mom-and-pop pet shop. I’m talking Petco. I suppose this is the most realistic job for a DGAF high school student, but my god, at least let him work in a record store or be in a band or something.
All of the adults are pretty open and available and communicative.
Now, teens have cool and open and relatable parents to act as the “appropriate” empathetic older person a teen can confide in. These are parents who are OK with girlfriends sleeping over on school nights! What is happening?
Where is prom? I want to go to prom.
The single biggest mark against The Edge of Seventeen is that it is distinctly prom-less. No homecoming dance or spring fling, not even a fall ball. What is a movie teen supposed to work toward if not a defining moment at a school-sponsored dance? Would Pretty in Pink have any tension (or a title) without the prom? Would Drive Me Crazy even be a movie if Adrian Grenier and Melissa Joan Hart didn’t finally get together at the big school dance inspired by a Britney Spears song? No.
In The Edge of Seventeen, the high school hierarchy has been done away with, the party scenes are pretty responsible, the crushes are … well, just like the actual crushes you used to have in high school — which is to say not Ryan Phillippe. After the She’s All Thats and Mean Girlses and Can’t Hardly Waits, and after all the movies of the late ’90s and early aughts that acknowledged teen sex, drunkenness, pathologically evil social manipulations, and choreographed dances, how can we go back to a sweeter, simpler, duller time of teen movies? This is the one essential lesson to the next movie that attempts to become a teen classic: please, don’t neglect the prom.