Starring: Hailee Stanfield, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgewick, Hayden Szeto
Rated R for Sexual Content, Language and Some Drinking-All Involving Teens
If country singers ever sung songs about suburbia, there could be a great one about Nadine (Stanfield). For her, life is suffering through an unending series of indignities. She has only one friend, Krista (Richardson), the boy she likes doesn't know she exists, her brother Darian (Jenner) is super popular and super good looking, and her mother (Sedgwick) just doesn't get her. The only one who cares about her is her father, but he's been dead for five years. Making matters infinitely worse is when she finds Krista in bed with Darian, who then has the gall to start dating her.
Adolescence sucks. Despite being occasionally romanticized in TV shows like "The Wonder Years" or any generic teeny-bopper movie, we all know how miserable it is. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig sticks pretty close to real life, aiming for a similar tone to "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." However, while that film certainly had its maudlin moments, it was counter balanced by scenes of levity and joy. Craig attempts to do the same thing, but for the most part it doesn't work. This is a bleak film, and not necessarily in a good way. It's not as savage as "Thirteen," but it's close.
What saves the film is the high quality of the acting. Hailee Stanfield, who scored an Oscar nomination for her performance in the "True Grit" remake (which I didn't like), is very good as Nadine. She's not a particularly likable person; Nadine is self-absorbed, complains a lot, and doesn't even acknowledge the feelings of Erwin (Szeto), a guy who actually likes her. But the story is told from her eyes, so this is understandable. Stanfield is able to get us on her side.
She surrounded by an able supporting cast. Woody Harrelson is in fine form as a teacher whose quick wit hides a deep capacity for empathy. It's so nice to see him get away from the emotionally stunted macho men who can't express themselves. It was moving in "The Messenger," but has been completely irritating every time he, or anyone else, has done it since. Haley Lu Richardson ably plays Krista as someone who has found herself growing apart from her best friend, but isn't the heartless bitch that Nadine has created her to be in her mind. Likewise, Kyra Sedgewick is also good as the mom who simply can't relate to her daughter, but loves her nonetheless. And Hayden Szeto is adorable in a nerdy sort of way.
The best of the supporting cast is Blake Jenner. As Darian, he's charisma personified. He's the kind of guy who flaunts his good looks, confidence and popularity without even trying. He's so perfect you want to strangle him. But as we learn, he's quite the cocky jerk that we think he is. Jenner certainly looks the part, and has that unforced swagger that can't really be learned. But he's also able to plumb the depths of heart to pull off the dramatic scenes. It's perfect casting.
The problem with the film is its tone. It fails to find the sweet spot between heartbreak and hilarity that a movie like "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" found. Or the aforementioned "The Perks of Being a Wallflower. There are some funny moments that do land, including one involving a racy text that is laugh aloud funny because of the way Harrelson plays it. Stanfield is there too, but Harrelson steals it. But overall this isn't a pleasant experience.
I applaud what Craig has attempted. The scenes where she portrays how it feels to be a put-upon high schooler are dead on. But the film will have trouble finding an audience. For one thing, it's too problematic for me to recommend, although it's a close call. For another, it has a teen-unfriendly R rating. This is rather befuddling, since while it's on the racier edge of being appropriate for teens, it's also about things that they experience, which makes the rating a more than a little ridiculous.
Perhaps you will be able to get more out of this than I did.