Like the petulant teen at its center, The Edge of Seventeen isn’t what you necessarily want or expect it to be, though, in time, it reveals itself to be something more valuable. The film’s trailers emphasized its similarities to the John Hughes films of old — light, quippy, and full of high jinks. But while The Edge of Seventeen has plenty of quips, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig centers them in real darkness. The film’s hero, Nadine, is recovering from the death of her father, and as played by the 19-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, she’s bitter, distant, and ultimately enthralling. It would be a breakout performance for any other actress, except that Steinfeld is already an Oscar nominee who, as many young stars seem to these days, moonlights as a pop star. And sure, the music is fine, but The Edge of Seventeen is proof that we really, really need Hailee Steinfeld to keep being a movie star.
If you haven’t seen The Edge of Seventeen — not many people have — Steinfeld’s character spends much of the film pouting. Nadine’s super-hot brother (Blake Jenner) starts dating her best friend. Her dad is dead, and her mom’s vapid. The cute guy she likes can barely look up from behind his swoop of hair to notice her. To these gripes — some typical, some that would be hard for anyone to bear — Steinfeld brings the conviction of a teen who is experiencing setbacks for the first time and treats them as evidence the universe is conspiring against her, and her alone. Over the course of the film, Nadine learns to differentiate between the small injustices of high school and the big injustices of life.
In the film, Steinfeld delivers a big, hypersensitive performance. Unlike most high-school-movie actors, she benefits from the fact that she is actually a teen, with the guileless look of a person who expects to be carded at a liquor store. But, as fans of True Grit might remember, she also has an intensity of actresses beyond her years. With every slight, Nadine’s eyebrows wriggle like seismographs, registering tremors of anger that hit the upper echelons of the Richter scale. In one scene, Craig keeps the camera on Steinfeld as her brother and former friend storm off to another room. Lying on a couch, Steinfeld’s face quivers with aftershock, as she alternates between forming a great comeback and thinking, What is even the point?
Given her Oscar nomination, Steinfeld’s work in The Edge of Seventeen shouldn’t be much of a surprise. But in the intervening few years, Steinfeld’s screen career seemed to stumble a bit. To be fair, where do you go after working with the Coen brothers? In Steinfeld’s case, to a smaller movies — Hateship Loveship, Begin Again — that didn’t connect, and to franchise films — Ender’s Game, Pitch Perfect 2 — that didn’t know what to do with her. (Pity her character in Pitch Perfect 2, whose primary character trait is that she breaks into a Jessie J song at inopportune moments.)
And then there’s the music. Steinfeld’s debut EP, Haiz, feels like a retread of every other pop act in the business, and her single “Love Myself,” couldn’t quite pull off the tricky feat of being both a cheeky ode to masturbation and a straight-faced self-empowerment anthem. Steinfeld later got caught on the fringes of Taylor Swift’s squad, and she made a bland appearance among a crowd of famous faces in the Bad Blood music video. In recent public appearances, she’s adopted a disconcerting blaccent. At this point in Steinfeld’s career, the album was oddly telling: She’s a creative force capable of great, specific work, who tends to get stuck in the haze (or Haiz) of mass-market dreck.
By any metric, Steinfeld’s achievements are far beyond most of her peers. The Edge of Seventeen reveals that Steinfeld has the potential to go even farther. Rather than offer advice to Hailee Steinfeld, who doesn’t need it, we have a simple plea: Please keep making movies like this one, box office be damned. You can do the music thing if you want, but don’t give up on playing abrasive, often unlikable, and fascinating characters. (And Hollywood, keep making movies that let her do this.) And remember that old teen-movie lesson: Nothing is less interesting than trying to be popular.