Roles in Retrospect #5 – Hailee Steinfeld and ‘Begin Again’ (2013)

While previous installments of this column have seen me talk about performances from various actresses in films I sought out after seeing them in other projects I enjoyed, this month I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach that feels even more retrospective! Rather than focusing on a performance that came to my attention after finding myself drawn to a recent role, this time I’m revisiting one that I first watched years ago. Thanks to Hailee Steinfeld’s starring roles in popular series like Dickinson, where she commands the screen as an anachronistic version of the titular famed poet, and Hawkeye, which sees her charm as expert archer and wannabe superhero Kate Bishop, she has risen to international fame. But while her career has undeniably soared to new heights in recent years, she first made an impression on me back in 2013, when I saw her shine on the big screen in the musical rom-com Begin Again.

Violet Mulligan (Hailee Steinfeld) in Begin Again. She wears a leopard print tank top and a shell necklace, with her hair in a side braid. She is sitting at a table looking at a man whose face is not visible in the frame.
Image courtesy of Exclusive Media Group

Written and directed by John Carney, and boasting major star power with a cast headlined by the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, the film ended up performing decently well at the box office. But while Begin Again became something of a sleeper hit, it’s not often a film that comes up in conversation when it comes to discussing Steinfeld’s past performances. She may have been known for her Oscar-nominated performance as Mattie in True Grit by this point, but the world hadn’t yet gotten to see her shine in the more contemporary teenage roles she would later be associated with. That’s why I thought it would be fun to reflect on how Begin Again gave audiences a taste of Steinfeld’s potential as an actress and musician a few years before her Pitch Perfect days and solo music career were even a blip on the horizon.

In the movie, Steinfeld plays Violet Mulligan, the disaffected 14-year-old daughter of music producer Dave Mulligan (Ruffalo). Wearing skimpy outfits and acting like she doesn’t care what people think, Violet moves through the world with a quiet rebellion. Steinfeld does a great job at making her character feel likeable and relatable rather than coming off as overly jaded, with Violet’s teenage insecurities apparent beneath her confident front. Even though her role in the film may not be a major one, Steinfeld holds her own amidst a cast of seasoned actors and easily manages to draw viewers’ attention whenever she does appear on screen. Violet’s differing dynamics with both her dad and his musical protegé Gretta James (Knightley) are enjoyable to watch and it’s a delight to see her come into her own as a result of their influence, particularly Gretta’s. She also gets her own rockstar musical moment later on in the film, which involves her jamming out on the electric guitar after a moment of hesitation. It feels as though the audience is witnessing the birth of a bonafide star right then and there— both when it comes to Violet and Steinfeld herself.

Hailee Steinfe
Image courtesy of Exclusive Media Group

Begin Again isn’t exactly Steinfeld-heavy as far as screen time is concerned, but I feel it’s still well worth checking out to get a taste of her early potential. Not to mention, the movie itself is a genuinely enjoyable watch, brimming with heart while providing a thoughtful critique of the music industry by examining what it means to be authentic as an artist. And of course, the various scenes Steinfeld does appear in throughout — which include her character candidly mentioning seeing a psychiatrist and sitting on a bench enjoying ice cream while sandwiched between Knightley and Ruffalo —  will come as a delight to her fans, both old and new.