There are few tropes in fiction – or in real life – as noxious as the ‘Nice Guy’. You know the kind: Quiet, ‘friendly’ but judgmental, pining away for a girl… who never gives him a moment’s notice while she pursues literally everyone else. He gets bitter. He knows he’s right for her. He knows she should fuck him. But for some reason, she just can’t see it. Why can’t she realize that he knows what’s best for her?
On the surface, writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s excellent 2016 coming-of-age film The Edge of Seventeen might seem to fall prey to that dynamic in its romantic subplot, like so many high school movies before it. The film’s romantic aspect gives its young lead, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), two options: Bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), and dorky classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto). On the surface, it appears to be a classic ‘Nice Guy’ scenario, as Nadine pines for Nick while quietly relying on Erwin’s emotional support. But while The Edge of Seventeen plays with many of the expected story beats in its romantic subplot, it puts an unexpected spin on what those beats mean and where they’re coming from.
Take the bad boy. Nick is introduced as Nadine stares across the quad at him and mutters, “God, juvie made him so hot.” Nadine isn’t particularly interested in him as a person; she wants to fuck him. Sort of. Nadine is a virgin, and she doesn’t quite know what she wants, but she knows he’s attractive and a little dangerous, and that’s enough for her fantasies. As she gets to know him, she realizes not just that she wants something different, but that he wants something different, that he wants the persona she put on to meet him rather than the person she actually is. Both of them were chasing fantasies.
And then there’s the nice guy. Erwin is introduced as a classmate; rather than someone she’s watching from afar, we meet him in conversation. He’s not an ideal, but a person Nadine knows and can judge. He’s awkward and funny and nervous but surprisingly self-confident; he’s a full person. And, unlike Nick, he’s forced to interact with Nadine as a complete person, dealing with her anger, cynicism, and depression early on in their relationship, side by side with her humor, intelligence, and energy.
It’s important to note here that Erwin is very clear about what he wants. While he’s happy to offer emotional support to Nadine, he never hides behind friendship. He asks her out the second time they talk. When she calls him to go to a carnival, he assumes it was a date and tries to kiss her. A key component of the Nice Guy is that he tries to use friendship as a building block to romance, a back door to get at a girl without risk, and that he uses that trust to subtly undermine her relationship with or interest in other, less suitable partners. Erwin doesn’t do that.
Erwin never knows about Nadine’s interest in Nick. He never finds out about the message she sends him, or about the date she goes on with him the night before the film festival. If this were Erwin’s story, the key dramatic moment of his story would be discovering this… and either forgiving her for it or moving beyond her, with his needs being foregrounded and hers being subsumed. Her realization would be that she was wrong to overlook him. A key moment late in the film suggests that Erwin might actually be seeing this as a nice guy narrative, and if he were the lead, we would likely be seeing that movie. Indeed, in a way, we do get to see a short version of that movie with Erwin’s short animated film.
But this is not Erwin’s story, and we aren’t seeing that movie. The Edge of Seventeen is Nadine’s story, and that makes a big difference. The dramatic turn here isn’t Erwin finding out about Nick and Nadine realizing she loved him, but about Nadine realizing what her self-destructive impulses do to the people around her. By being confronted with her mistaken assumptions about Nick, her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) in rapid succession, Nadine is forced to confront the gap between the people in her life and her vision of the people in her life. By changing the point of view, Craig changes the center of gravity of the Nice Guy Narrative in an essential way. It changes what the movie is about.
The Edge of Seventeen is, overall, one of the sharpest movies out there about teenage relationships and mental health, and not just in its look at teenage romance. The movie has a sophisticated understanding of the way people use the conflicting demands within any relationship to hurt one another, of how easy it is to use our expectations of each other to lash out. The basic components of the film – nice guy love triangle, best friend dating her perfect brother, unable to relate to her flighty mother – all seem cliche at first blush, but through the immaculately developed Nadine, Craig finds a core soulfulness that moves beyond our expectations of these tropes.
The Edge of Seventeen is still out in some theaters, and is available to buy On Demand right now. It will be available to rent or to own a physical copy of starting February 14th. Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen stars Hailee Steinfeld, Blake Jenner, and Woody Harrelson.