Hear me out.
Coming-of-age stories are much more significant than just being relatable teen content. For young people like me who are gradually entering adulthood, they allow us to escape from reality, but also face it; we are able to see how characters in a story react to situations and compare that to our own experiences. They present characters that we can relate to and help us find humor and beauty in ordinary life. High school coming-of-age films have been around for decades, and often seen as cliche. But the beauty with these types of films is that with every year, new filmmakers refine and improve the ‘overused’ genre to stay current and relatable to a modern teenager.
To me, The Edge of Seventeen (2016) is a perfect example of how powerful a coming-of-age story can be. As I watched the narrative unfold, many repressed memories of my high school years came flooding back in – but not in a bad way. I am thankful for this movie and how it helped me cope with my senior year, validating even my smallest teenage frustrations. The Edge of Seventeen was directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and is the story of seventeen-year-old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is simply trying to survive junior year alongside her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).
After her brother starts dating Krista, Nadine finds herself completely alone since her father passed away and her mother is emotionally unavailable. The subtle pettiness, rebellion, dark sense of humor and loneliness intertwined in this story makes it the most realistic coming-of-age movie I have ever seen. But, most importantly The Edge of Seventeen does something I have rarely seen in movies; it flawlessly shows that underneath all of Nadine’s external complications, she is ultimately fighting with herself.
A year later, Lady Bird (2017) was released and soon became the coming-of-age story everybody was talking about. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson as she finishes her final year of high school while applying to colleges. Just like any teenage girl, she goes through issues with boys, parents, popularity and identity. Shortly after, Lady Bird was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two Golden Globes. But after watching it, I was confused as to why it was so praised and found myself underwhelmed. Meanwhile, The Edge of Seventeen was only nominated for one Golden Globe and a few awards in smaller film festivals, but I found it left a much stronger impact on me.
It’s important to note that these two films have a great amount of similarities that I have found. First, they were both written and directed by women (yay), who both made their feature directorial debuts. Both films also had roughly the same budget; Lady Bird’s budget was $10 million and The Edge of Seventeen’s was $9 million. In terms of the narrative, Nadine and Lady Bird were both in high school, had tense relationships with their mothers and got along better with their fathers.
Throughout the two films, they both lose touch with their closest friend and both have a crush on an edgy boy. I would also say they both have selfish and reckless personalities which cause them conflict with a lot of important people in their lives. But the bottom line is that both films are coming-of-age stories filled with laughter, nostalgia, frustration and simply growing up.
I wanted to add a disclaimer that I don’t think Lady Bird is a bad film. But when I put it side by side with The Edge of Seventeen, I found myself wondering why Lady Bird got the recognition it deserved, but The Edge of Seventeen didn’t. In other words, The Edge of Seventeen walked so that Lady Bird could run. Here are the five areas I have broken down where I think The Edge of Seventeen excelled compared to Lady Bird.
What typically attracts people to this genre is the comedy, nostalgia and ultimately, relatability. Relatability cannot be forced. It should come naturally and practically unnoticeable to the audience. You don’t have to be in high school to relate to a high school character and what matters most is how the characters react in these situations. The way Nadine deals with everything going on in her life is what made me relate so strongly to her character and then the film; my best friend never dated my brother, nor did I ever accidentally send an explicit text to my crush but that’s not the point. The point is I can see a person in a sticky situation and how she manages (or fails) to get out of it. It’s her reaction to her challenges that makes her relatable to me.
On the other hand, when Lady Bird didn’t want to talk with her mom, she threw herself out of the car. When she wanted to fit in, she dropped her best friend, and when her mom told her that she can’t apply to schools in New York, she went behind her back, applied anyway and went without her approval. Personally, as a teenager girl I never really thought these were ways to deal with situations. Both characters are dramatic and headstrong but Lady Bird was far more difficult to connect with because of the poor choices she made.
Proma Khosla from Mashable wrote an article about the two girls saying “…they fundamentally don’t know who they are – or don’t like the answer.”
This can be perfectly depicted towards the end of The Edge of Seventeen when Nadine confronts her brother about her fears: “You know ever since we were little I would get this feeling like, like I’m floating outside of 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 that feeling is never gonna go away,”. Nadine accepting herself wasn’t something that was going to happen by changing her name, going on a date with her dream boy, or meeting new friends. Her monologue shows how throughout the whole film, she was projecting her fears onto others because she was so afraid of who she was or wasn’t.
“I gave it to myself. It was given to me, by me,”. To me, Christine’s decision to go by Lady Bird name was just a lazy way to show a character isn’t happy with something they were born with. It seemed too obvious and surface level. Her unhappiness in Sacramento and wanting to move to New York City is so defined in this film and just makes it feel even more cliche.
I think a lot of what kept me much more attached to Nadine was how isolated she became. After Krista started dating her brother, Nadine was the one who suffered. Concurrently, when Lady Bird started hanging out with the cool girl Jenna, her best friend Julie was the one who got hurt. Comparing these two situations, I of course felt more for Nadine. Lady Bird didn’t really suffer that much throughout the film. She even got to go to her dream school and just ends up changing her name back to Christine (of course).
What I appreciate so much about The Edge of Seventeen is that artistically, it isn’t over the top. Fremon Craig is able to capture the beauty of Nadine’s life without getting carried away. Her focus was always on the story. It never felt like it was trying to be something more, or something that its not. It felt like Gerwig got caught up with wanting to push the boundaries for what a coming-of-age film could be and forgot to make the story deeper.
Every story has multiple layers of dilemmas. Like I’ve said earlier, in both of these films, Nadine and Lady Bird have a hard time with being a teenage girl. But what is so exceptional to Nadine’s character is if you look a little closer, her biggest problem is that she is not happy with herself. Nadine fights with a lot of people in The Edge of Seventeen but the toughest battle she dealt with was inside.
Meanwhile, there wasn’t really anything subtle about Lady Birds character. Every problem she faced was right in front of her and never from within; her mom, her financial situation, Sacramento, and being friends with the right people. There wasn’t anything deeper to her problems. Other than the typical abandonment of her best friend to hang out with the cool kids and wanting to move away from home; both cliche and overused in coming-of-age stories.
When I told my friend that I wanted to write an article about the two films, she told me she doesn’t see how somebody could compare them. That’s when I realized that these films were made individually, with people who have different intentions and different goals of storytelling. Just because my life doesn’t exactly align with the themes found in Lady Bird, doesn’t make it any less of a film. I can appreciate Lady Bird for what it is, and I can appreciate The Edge of Seventeen for what it is.
Khosla goes onto say “What both films do so wonderfully is address the nuance of being a teenager…”. Being a teenager is scary, weird, complicated and different for everyone. I applaud both filmmakers for their exceptional storytelling about such a complex age and for their ability to openly connect to their audience and make them feel a part of the experience.
Lady Bird and The Edge of Seventeen are both available to stream online for free if you have Prime Video and Netflix so if you haven’t seen one or both I highly recommend you watch them. Leave your thoughts below on which movie resonates more with you!
And, one more thing: Greta, I still love you.