Hailee Steinfeld's performance elevates the funny and perceptive dramedy “The Edge of Seventeen.”

Since her sparkling debut in “True Grit,” Hailee Steinfeld has pretty much been laid to waste by filmmakers failing to recognize the talented teen’s vast potential. But lucky for her, she hasn’t escaped the notice of Kelly Fremon Craig, who thrusts Steinfeld to the precipice of superstardom with her funny, perceptive dramedy “The Edge of Seventeen.” “Edge” is the operative word, as Craig grinds the genre’s conventions to a razor sharpness that cut deep and give Steinfeld a platform to tap all her best instincts in fleshing out the most loveable self-absorbed cynic since Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Her Nadine is also a bit of a drama queen, as Steinfeld humorously communicates in an opening scene in which she storms up to her equally sarcastic teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, outstanding), declaring she’s going to commit suicide.
She’s seeking advice on method. But all he offers in return is a grudging shrug of annoyance over her interrupting his lunch – yet again. Clearly, this isn’t their first rodeo when it comes to Nadine making idle threats. It’s even clearer that Steinfeld and Harrelson share great chemistry that will only grow stronger over the course of a movie that zips along while making its not-so-subtle points about accepting others – and yourself – with humor and heart.

Initially, the chill is palpable, as Craig fills us in on why Nadine is the way she is; and why she’s so adept at repelling all within her orbit, including her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and popular all-American brother, Darian, played with an unexpected sweetness and intelligence by Blake Jenner. You’re attempted to join them in their contempt, given Nadine’s abrasive, know-it-all approach to everything.
But Steinfeld won’t allow it, as she peels back the layers to reveal the scared, unconfident fawn Nadine is hiding behind her hardened facade. Her one-and-only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), sees past it, too, which is why she’s devotedly stuck beside her BFF since they were 7 years old. But when Krista starts to fall for Darian after an impromptu roll in the sack, Nadine feels betrayed, serving her “disloyal” pal an ultimatum: me or him. Thus, Craig’s clever script is set in motion, as Nadine learns just how alone feeling alone can be.

Like “Pretty in Pink,” Craig’s obvious inspiration, Nadine is presently presented with a love-struck, tongue-tied nerd she refuses to give the time of day. He’s played by Hayden Szeto in a hilarious breakout performance that as disarming as it is charming. Any girl in her right mind would fall for his Erwin, but not Nadine, a believer in the axiom that she won’t belong to any club that wants her as a member.

It would be easy for Craig to pile on, given all of Nadine’s faults, but she also lends her heroine much to be admired, particularly her individuality. She’s an outcast and an outlaw, right down to her thrift store-chic clothes, which regularly consist of a short, schoolgirl skirt, dark tights and red-white-and-blue high tops. She’s a sight to see; and props to costume designer Carla Hetland for dressing her that way. Steinfeld rocks it, too. So much so, that when she temporarily sells out by dressing like a “lady” to impress the hunky kid (Alexander Calvert) just out of juvie, she actually looks odd.

But it’s the actress inside the clothes that gives “The Edge of Seventeen” its distinctive style and attitude. Even when the inevitable time comes for Nadine to see the error of her ways and learn to open up and stop being so judgmental, Steinfeld skillfully sells it, expertly navigating the film’s sudden shift from comedy to drama.

It’s exactly that blend of tenderness and wit that lured James L. Brooks (“Broadcast News,” “Terms of Endearment”) to produce Craig’s small gem of a movie. Like Brooks, Craig isn’t afraid to show us messy lives in disorder. And even though her film has a narcissistic teenager at its center, Craig is clearly skewing toward an older, more reflective audience. Which helps explain why she’s rendered “Edge” just blue enough to earn an R rating. For kids, it’s not. It’s for us, the old farts who remember just how stupid we were in our youth; and how awesome life proved to be once we found the nerve to live it.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (R for sexual content, language and some drinking – all involving teens.) Cast includes Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner and Hayden Szeto. Grade: B+