Thousands of women auditioned for the role of angsty teen Nadine Byrd in Kelly Fremon Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen,” but none of them fit the part. Fremon Craig’s directorial debut had a lot going for it: a lively screenplay in tune with the John Hughes movies that inspired it, and legendary comedy guru James L. Brooks as a producer. However, without a young woman able to convey Nadine’s frustrations with the world, its tricky comedy-drama balance would fall apart.
“The part is hard,” Brooks said. “We needed to have someone who could make it seem true and natural, and nobody could nail it.”
Fremon Craig was growing despondent. “We’re never going to make this,” she recalled thinking at the time.
Then Hailee Steinfeld showed up, and everything changed. The actress was just a year older than the character, who struggles with the aftermath of her father’s death, a falling out with her best friend, and a rocky relationship to her single mother. The role calls for an ability to look alternately infuriated and sad, an unseemly mix that’s both humorous and melancholic. Steinfeld, who has shown a knack for portraying high-strung young women since her Oscar-nominated debut in 2010’s “True Grit,” performed a few scenes from “The Edge of Seventeen” and landed the part shortly afterward.
“We saw the movie for the first time with Haley,” Brooks recalled.
For Fremon Craig, “it was like the skies opened,” she said. “She’s so funny and quick, she’s lightning fast, and she can’t have a dishonest moment.”
That was a critical selling point for a movie that put its main character at the center of nearly every scene. While nothing in “The Edge of Seventeen” breaks new ground — it’s a natural continuity of the Hughes tradition — Fremon Craig’s screenplay could easily pitch into whimsical territory without the degree of naturalism that Steinfeld brings to her performance. From her first scene, when she trades barbs with her snarky high school teacher (Woody Harrelson) while making an off-color joke about suicide, it’s clear that Nadine holds nothing back. Her life grows more complicated when longtime pal Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) sleeps with Nadine’s older brother (Blake Jenner), and Nadine’s troubles only worsen as she develops an unhealthy fantasy about a hunky classmate.
But none of these typical suburban teen problems would seem especially engaging if Steinfeld didn’t completely own her character’s furious energy. “It’s weird,” Fremon Craig said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. She just shows up, starts talking, and boom — she’s 150 percent in that character.”
Steinfeld’s compelling turn comes at a defining moment as she wraps up her teen years with a successful range of projects and no serious missteps. Since her debut with the Coen brothers’ “True Grit,” she has juggled smaller efforts such as the musical-comedy “Begin Again” along with broader commercial fare, from “Pitch Perfect 2” to “Ender’s Game.” In a crowded year for the best actress field, Steinfeld’s ability to crack the Oscar race may be a long shot. But she’s so believable in the part, and has maintained such a robust filmography over the years, that she deserves serious consideration (and could at least crack the comedy race at the Golden Globes).
No matter the extent of her achievements, Steinfeld sounds about as much like a normal teenager as her character. Home-schooled until she finished high school last year, she’s comes off awkward, at times even introverted, when forced to answer questions about her career. The interview format doesn’t suit her, just as it wouldn’t for many teens forced to squint under bright lights and answer tough questions, but she brings that same authenticity to her roles.
For “The Edge of Seventeen,” Steinfeld explained in a phone conversation, her performance emerged organically from discussions with her director. “We just talked about real-life situations and how I could make this character feel real, feel like me,” she said. That seemingly tossed-off directive points to a deeper truth. “We wanted other teenagers to watch this movie and see themselves in the character,” she said. “She comes off as being super-tough and has the answers to every question, but on the inside, you see that she really is just fragile. That’s real life. We all have those moments where it’s comical how overdramatic we can be.”
In a broader sense, that observation has defined Steinfeld’s career. In her most involving performances, she plays an anxious woman in a man’s world, battling to stand out from the noise. Both “True Grit” and the Civil War-set “The Keeping Room” gave her the opportunity to rejuvenate the western formula with feminist zeal, while “The Edge of Seventeen” repositions that fighting spirit in a suburban context. However, Steinfeld shrugs off the connections between her roles.
“It’s funny how everything has sort of fallen into place that way,” she said. “I did more period pieces than contemporary ones for a while. Going from genre to genre, time period to time period — there’s been no real message behind that.”
The movies tell a different story. Time and again, Steinfeld brings a mixture of vulnerability and enthusiasm that has a decisively modern feel. “There are so many times that Jim and I turned to each other, and went, ‘Holy shit, she’s the actress of her generation,'” Fremon Craig said. And indeed, the role embodies many of the hesitations and outbursts particular to our conflicting times, when gender equality has become a national talking point even as it remains an uneasy landscape of opportunities. Steinfeld doesn’t just carry “The Edge of Seventeen;” she turns it into a statement.
The actress’ resume contains more risks than surefire bets, and there’s no question that she’s aware of it. “If it’s something I feel is a challenge and seems somewhat impossible before I do it, that feels like an accomplishment to me,” she said. “There were really no wrong answers when it came to choices in this movie.” She avoided specifics, but there’s no doubting that she incorporated her own experiences into the performance. “The character is on her journey to finding her way in the world,” she said. “As a 19-year-old, I’m still doing that myself.”