Teen films have a long and rich tradition, stretching back to the golden age of the John Hughes classics of the 1980s. However, I’m struggling to think of many good recent examples of the genre, apart from this year’s Dublin-set ‘Sing Street’. Therefore, it was a delight to discover this fresh voice to American high-school black-comedies, and from a female writer-director too.
Hailee Steinfeld plays the classic trope of the social outcast protagonist, Nadine. Her misery at her lack of friends is compounded by the fact that her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner – ‘Everybody Wants Some!’) is a perfect, popular jock and her father died suddenly when she was 13. Nadine clashes with her mother (it’s nice to see Kyra Sedgwick in a recent film role, as she’s from one of my favourite films – ‘Singles’) and seeks solace in an unsympathetic teacher (played by a hilarious Woody Harrelson), so all-in-all, her life sucks. The only saving grace for Nadine is her one-and-only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who remains loyal, despite Nadine’s indulgent self-loathing. Things take a turn for the even-worse though, when Krista hooks up with Darian one drunken night and they start a relationship.
It’s probably my age and experience as a secondary school teacher, but I found myself empathising much more with Nadine’s mum and teacher than with the central character. Mr Brener (Harrelson) says the outrageous things out loud which many teachers are thinking and feeling (sometimes screaming) internally and he is gifted the film’s funniest lines. I also felt sympathy for Darian, struggling with his paternal role in trying to hold his family together. Of course, the film centres around Steinfeld’s performance as the titular seventeen year old in turmoil, making bad choices (inevitably going for the rebellious boy when a lovely one is throwing himself at her) and being as dramatic as possible at all times. Although she is, in many ways, a terrible person – we don’t hate her because we can hopefully all remember what it was like to be that self-involved teenager and also because she’s very funny. The only thing that grates on me with films where the protagonist is supposed to be a social reject, is it is slightly more unbelievable when they are played by a stunningly beautiful actress.
It is nice to see a recent high-school movie which is set in the present day and although it has a retro feel because of Nadine’s idiosyncratic fashion choices, it is interesting to see a modern-day teen navigating the many pitfalls of mobile phones and Facebook. Not enough films, in any genre, are tackling contemporary themes such as this, in my opinion.
The film has a zingy script and fantastic performances from all of the acting talent involved. Still only 19, Steinfeld is now building on the promise of her Oscar-nominated turn in ‘True Grit’ and hopefully has a long and illustrious career ahead of her. Blake Jenner is also making some interesting choices, when he could have gone simply down the teen heart-throb route. The film has a nice artistic side-line (also a feature of ‘What If’ and ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’), through the animation of Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who is possibly even more adorably socially awkward than Nadine.
I feel excited to have discovered a fresh female voice in film and hope this isn’t a one-off fluke from this writer-director. This is the type of film which could very easily slip under the radar in Oscar-season (I’m feeling overwhelmed by all of the films I need to see before the year is out), but it is definitely worth seeking out. You won’t regret it.