Everything that happens to Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is unfair, at least in her eyes. She lost her beloved dad and now she’s about to lose her only friend, who has started dating her despised brother. The world is out to get her and nobody knows what’s she’s going through. She is, in short, a teenager.
Nadine Byrd is a self-declared “old soul”. This tells you a lot about her. 1) She thinks about herself an enormous amount; 2) She doesn’t believe she fits in with the rest of her generation; 3) She’s kind of a dick, because really, who says that? Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut is a bravely honest, very funny movie about what it is to be a teenager, when you think you’re different and that nobody understands you, but really it’s you who has yet to get a grip on yourself. She doesn’t always put us on her heroine’s side, but she asks that we always understand her and makes sure we do.
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is an awkward, precocious high-school junior, who has one friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and one parent, having lost her beloved dad a few years ago. When Krista starts dating Nadine’s brother Darian (Blake Jenner), who Nadine thinks has led an unfairly charmed life and resents him for it, it is the end of her world. She has, she believes, lost the one remaining person who understood her. She is now all alone.
Fremon Craig treats her subject with grown-up respect, even if she’s not quite a grown-up yet.
Nadine is not someone to whom it’s easy to warm. She lashes out easily and always believes she is the wronged party. If you think of other good isolated-teen movies, there’s usually an element of the lead having been in some way unfairly treated. Sixteen Candles’ Sam is ignored at home and embarrassed at school; Easy A’s Olive was vilified for being promiscuous, even though she wasn’t; Mean Girls’ Cady was subtly bullied for caring about things other than popularity. Nadine is just unhappy that some things haven’t gone her way. She’s suffered loss, but so has her brother. It’s a bold choice by Fremon Craig to make Nadine’s only antagonist herself, but it works because, for one, she’s cast Steinfeld in the lead, who can give bruised layers to the anger and snappy delivery to the jokes. She keeps her interesting. In a solo scene where Nadine, locked in a bathroom at a party, begs herself not to be awkward and to make friends, she gets you on side. Fremon Craig keeps seeding these reminders about the softness under the shell.
The other thing she does is to superbly write and cast supporting characters to call Nadine on her bullshit and see something more in her, encouraging us to do the same. In the opening scene, Nadine runs into a classroom to tell her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) that she’s going to kill herself. Rather than try to discourage her, Bruner explains he’s thinking about doing the same, for much better reasons. He sees through her nonsense. A nerdy classmate (Hayden Szeto, adorable as a useless flirt) who wants to date Nadine but keeps getting cruelly rebuffed shows Nadine she treats other people the way she thinks they treat her. Fremon Craig draws the whole Nadine via the people around her, so even when you don’t like her, you like those who do, which circles you back to liking her.
Though everything Nadine is going through is standard teenage stuff, Fremon Craig stays away from the touchstones of the genre — there are no bullies, no big prom, no cruel teachers or cliques. She treats her subject with grown-up respect, even if she’s not quite a grown-up yet.
A very strong debut by writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig deals with all the usual teenage concerns — dating, family, school — in a way that tries to go beyond genre cliché, with a heroine who is often unlikeable but always believable.