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The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Drama Rated R

You can’t really call The Edge of Seventeen Hailee Steinfeld’s breakout, considering she anchored, quite capably, the Coen brothers’ True Grit in 2010. Yet if there she proved herself to be a precocious juggler of the Coens’ verbal batons, here she does something similar, and more: her motor-mouthed, whip-smart Nadine is an achingly funny portrayal of a high schooler in search of that rarest of jewels, a confident sense of self.

Nearly everything Nadine does—from her frank sexual language to her anti-fashion wardrobe— is a bluff, a show of brazenness in an attempt to mask her roiling insecurity. The film opens with a perfectly played scene in which she comes storming into the classroom of her history teacher (Woody Harrelson), interrupting his lunch to tell him she’s going to kill herself. His calm response is the film’s first big laugh—and an early sign that this guy knows how to speak extreme sarcasm, Nadine’s language.

Steinfeld juggles the many Nadines beautifully.

If being a teenager means trying on many masks each day to see which one fits, Steinfeld juggles the many Nadines beautifully. It’s not just that she “pretends” for most of the time and then gives us a scene or two of the “real” Nadine. Rather, she adjusts the chemical balance constantly, understanding that Nadine’s sneer and smile are both a part of her. The challenge is to find the right formula, the one that feels the most true and best honors her relationships with her family and friends.

Speaking of which, The Edge of Seventeen has an uncommonly strong supporting cast, from Harrelson as that lifeline of a teacher to an extremely vulnerable Kyra Sedgwick as Nadine’s mess of a mom to Blake Jenner as her popular older brother (their sibling spats are hilariously exact). Hayden Szeto has some nice moments as the obvious boyfriend material Nadine can’t quite see, while Haley Lu Richardson, as her best friend, registers strongly at the start before getting somewhat forgotten by the screenplay.

That screenplay is by Kelly Fremon Craig, who also makes her directorial debut. Along with an ear for on-point dialogue, Craig has a sharp visual eye, especially when it comes to capturing Nadine’s interior state. Mostly she keeps the camera close—a smart move given Steinfeld’s remarkably expressive face—but here and there she’ll position her alone in the frame, pointedly apart from other social interaction. Nadine stands there, at once forlorn and defiant—in need of a hug but ready to bite your hand if you were to try it. It’s a brave performance, never once kowtowing toward likability, and reason to believe that Steinfeld deserves to be a star.