Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a sixteen-year-old girl who marches into the office of Mr Bruner (Woody Harrelson), the only teacher she feels she can talk to, and interrupts his lunch break by informing him she is going to commit suicide and she simply wanted to tell someone before she did the deed. After this rant, he pauses and proceeds to let her know that he is planning to do the same, because that way he might get a bit of peace and quiet, but to find out why Nadine is so enraged and self-destructive, we have to go back to the source of her problem, and that doesn't mean the start of the day, it means going back to her early school years where her brother was the popular one and she had no friends at all...
Teen movies had certainly smartened up in the twenty-first century, ostensibly because the people making them had grown up idolising the work of John Hughes, the eighties teen flick King, but they did not owe everything to his style, they were very much becoming their own thing, reflecting their more media-savvy viewers. This also meant the best of them had an appreciation wider that the teenage audience, as those who had, like those creative teams, known of the eighties efforts their whole life also welcomed a comedy, or a drama, or a romance, or a romantic comedy drama, that appealed to them by making them laugh and think back to the formative years that they may cringe at, or feel nostalgic for.
Or possibly both, it was an old adage but the notion that the school days were the happiest years of your life might not seem that way when you were living them, and so it is with Nadine, who recognises she is a weirdo but seems powerless to do anything to change that. She was bullied when she was a little girl, but now she's nearly seventeen she's more or less ignored, aside from her best friend who made the tough times bearable. She is Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and they have been best pals ever since they bonded over a furry caterpillar (really), which makes it all the tougher to take when Krista falls in love with Nadine's brother Darian (Blake Jenner) as there are few people on the planet she despises more than her sibling.
There were plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle hints in director Kelly Fremon Craig's screenplay at what has made Nadine turn out the way she has, but also that she is still on the journey to adulthood therefore there remains plenty of time to change and adapt - or plenty of room for improvement, if you want to look at it that way. The death of her doting father (Eric Keenleyside) a few years before is the major disruption, and all three members of his family, including his widow Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), have struggled with the loss which there are indications has had a more seismic effect than they are prepared to admit. Hence Nadine seeks out a father figure in Mr Bruner, who gives every signal of not giving a shit (his idea of teaching is to put on a DVD for his class and leaving the room).
It could be he is trying not to get too close to his students because he knows it simply is not worth it, but Nadine persists, and essentially strongarms him into caring, or at least admitting he cared all along, and Harrelson was superb in every scene he was in. But this was Steinfeld's movie really, offered some excellent dialogue and a chance to exhibit a wide range, and seizing that opportunity with great skill. We sympathise with her outsider status because we can perceive she is not such a bad kid, she just has to work a few things out, like not pushing people away through her lack of self-esteem and bad decision-making in terms of her communication skills. There was a lot about the art of conversation here: Nadine talks nineteen to the dozen, but has trouble being understood since she says the wrong things and therefore gives off the wrong signals - her potential boyfriend, a genial nerd called Erwin (Hayden Szeto), has no idea where he stands with her - and so much would be worked out and coped with if the characters were able to express themselves adequately. Maybe not groundbreaking, but with hilarious bits and a genuine feeling for those who don't fit in, without being soft on them either. Music by Atli Örvarsson (but no Stevie Nicks!)