When's the last time you saw a truly fresh talent on screen? Someone so charismatic that you couldn't wait to find out who they are, what they've done before and why you've never noticed? That's what it feels like to watch Hayden Szeto as the sweetly dorky love interest to Hailee Steinfeld's lead in "The Edge of Seventeen ," a charmingly sardonic coming-of-age story from the promising writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig in her feature debut.
There are other reasons to go see "The Edge of Seventeen," of course. Szeto, a relative newcomer, is just one of them. He actually has a fairly small part. But it's the kind of introduction to a should-be star that's not to be missed. Also, that the small "love interest" role had such an impact is a testament to the care with which this movie was put together. From the first shot of a grungy maroon sedan door splattered with mud screeching to a halt outside of a high school where our heroine Nadine (Steinfeld) informs her teacher (a terrific Woody Harrelson) that she plans to kill herself, it's clear that this is no sanitized high school nostalgia trip. It's a movie with a bite and one for the people who would never actually want to go back to that part of life.
Nadine (Steinfeld) is a sarcastic, often inappropriate, occasionally blue and perpetually aggrieved young woman who exists on the peripheries of the high school ecosystem. It's been this way since childhood for her, and hasn't been helped by the fact that her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is at the top of the social ladder. He's handsome and popular and good at sports and would probably be real annoying if it weren't for the fact that he's also a decent, kind person who seems to have his head on straight.
But he's the bane of Nadine's existence, and just a consistent reminder how other she is. It certainly doesn't help when her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) takes up with her brother, but that pivotal moment does send her into a story-propelling spiral of action, screw-ups and self-discovery.
There is, of course, the perpetual problem in the Hollywood treatment of high school outcast stories whereby we're asked to believe that beautiful movie stars are capable of being invisible, but "The Edge of Seventeen" even does a reasonable job making us buy into Nadine's apartness. She had some unfortunate skin and haircuts when she was younger and never quite got comfortable with kids her own age. Sure, she can throw down with her mom, her brother, her teacher and her friend, but at a party with peers, she slinks out to the porch alone where another loner likens her to the Danny DeVito in "Twins."
Steinfeld carries the movie effortlessly, walking that fine line of making a somewhat bratty, entitled and self-absorbed character endearing, funny and even empathetic. Her comedic timing is first-rate and reminiscent of Emma Stone's star-turn in "Easy A" just a few years ago.
Sure, some of it is cliche, and Nadine's troubled relationship with her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is underdrawn for the amount of emotional depth the movie seems to be wanting the audience to glean from it. Perhaps it should have stayed lighter. But "The Edge of Seventeen" also has enough good that it might just become a new classic in the high school comedy genre.
"The Edge of Seventeen," a STX Entertainment release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sexual content, language and some drinking — all involving teens." Running time: 104 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr