Hailee Steinfeld came out of nowhere back in 2010 to deliver an extraordinarily layered performance in her first major film, True Grit. Since then, she’s managed to carve out an interesting career in a variety of films that run the genre gamut from science fiction to comedy in both indie and major studio offerings. She’s more than capable of bringing heightened power to any role while at the same time staying hidden in the background. Not classically beautiful, yet far from ordinary plain-Jane, Steinfeld sits somewehre in between, conveying a commanding beauty while digging deep into the trenches, unafraid to get dirty within the cracks of her vulnerability. She commands this attitude perfectly in the coming-of-age drama The Edge of Seventeen, the study of how an invisible high school student can only find their place when they stop looking to be like everyone else and start looking at what makes them unique.
Nadine (Steinfeld) is a loner. A child so insecure, she tries way too hard to live up to the standards of those that fill her with jealousy. Bullied at school and consistently fighting the friction between her and her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), Nadine finds solace in two very important freinds: her father (Eric Keenleyside) and her best (and only) friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). So after losing her father to a heart attack, it’s no surprise that when she catches Krista hooking up with her hot-shot, popular brother (Blake Jenner), the betrayal crumbles Nadine’s entire world. The only person she has left to turn to is Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), a teacher she’s probably able to connect with because he’s a lonely, frustrated, cynic, pushing back with just the right sense of friendship and grievance. She also befriends Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a sweet kid who obviously has a crush on Nadine, but to whom she’s oblivious since her eyes are fixated on one of the “cooler” kids.
The script, written by Kelly Fremon Craig (who also directed), is genuine and heartfelt. Most of what Nadine goes through in her day-to-day routine is universal. Unlike a lot of Mean Girls-style high school comedies, Craig doesn’t try to force all of the “clicks” down your throat. It’s a normal world, where yes, there may be both idealized people and those who just don’t fit the popular mold, but the school isn’t ever displayed as being sectioned off into layers of obvious groups. Everyone has a certain amount of layers where no one person is just one thing, allowing Nadine to be unique enough to separate herself from the crowd, and at the same time mold her into some invisible nothing. In other words, no one notices her, and yet she’s exactly like the majority of everyone else wandering the halls, half of whom are probably going through similar types of turmoil. You just don’t notice because you just don’t care.
The highlight of the film has to be the interaction and chemistry between Steinfeld and Harrelson. Every time they’re together, the movie perks up a little, leaving me wanting to see much more of that bond. When the film opens and Nadine announces to Mr. Bruner that she thought an adult should know she was ready to kill herself, the mere act of revealing such a personal revelation to someone (even if it is simply an exaggeration brought on by an embarrassing mistake) shows a connection that goes far beyond what the movie actually develops. It was clear we were going to get to see the events that led up to that moment, but there isn’t quite enough interaction between these two to warrant how freely Nadine reveals the contents of that particular scene. Nevertheless, the two actors pull off their camaraderie with flair, even if one side is so over-the-top and the other is so quiet and subdued – the dichotomy works like magic.
No matter how connected I felt to the film, though, there were a couple of things about it that bothered me, mostly because I felt they both worked well for the overall theme, yet failed to live up to expectations. Firstly, Craig has chosen to create a world that is so all-encompassing that it’s extremely hard to pinpoint a time frame. We know it’s 2016 by the sheer fact that they state several times that Nadine’s father died in 2011 and a calendar at the school says 2016, but the fashion feels as if it stepped directly out of an eighties John Hughes film. For the first thirty minutes, I don’t even think I saw a cell phone, which for a high school movie set in 2016, is hard to believe. So trying to connect with a world that isn’t quite sure of what era it wants to be a part of was a little frustrating. On the other hand, that’s exactly how it should feel. This confusion adds to Nadine’s character and what she herself is going through — a lost soul traversing time while doing everything she can to remain frozen in one specific period.
The other thing that didn’t quite grab me was the climax of the film, which feels far too rushed, especially when Craig is trying to convince me that one conversation with her brother would change Nadine’s complete outlook on life. At the same time, there was enough there to believe it was possible, and the acting by both Steinfeld and Jenner kept it from becoming too melodramatic, adding in just the right amount of honesty. It goes hand-in-hand with the film’s message and to who Hailee Steinfeld is as both an actress and a person. She’s a normal young woman who uses her God-given ability to prove that you don’t have to be the most popular creature to walk the earth; all you need is to be honest about who you are, and the world will find your beauty.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Allied, Bad Santa 2, Moana and Rules Don’t Apply. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.