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Haley Lu Richardson and the Art of Graceful Realism

We can trust the ‘Columbus’ star to handle our emotions with care in all of her tour-de-force performances.
Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus
Sundance Institute
By  · Published on July 15th, 2021

Welcome to Filmographiesa column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Haley Lu Richardson.

When I think of Haley Lu Richardson, sunshine comes to mind. Over the years, her humbler beginnings on television (including a recurring role on ABC Family’s supernatural teen drama Ravenswood) have evolved to include a slate of big-screen ventures that earmark her for unforgettable stardom.

With her magnificent toothy grin and infectious spark, she frequently elevates these works with undetectable authenticity and outstanding gravitas. The actress’ varied selection of feature films is the most rewarding part of her resumé, as it illustrates the essence of a steadily rising star.

Here’s a breakdown of her movie career and performances so far:

Escape from Polygamy (2012)

Haley Lu Richardson’s early movies found their home on the small screen. Her very first feature, the tornado-themed disaster flick Christmas Twister, is so questionable that there isn’t much charm to it at all. In fact, Richardson comes out on top as the most serviceable actor in the entire cast given the flick’s incoherent screenplay.

In comparison, Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Lifetime romantic-drama Escape from Polygamy surprisingly delivers several moments of genuine enjoyment despite its cringe-worthy title. Richardson takes the lead as Julina, one half of a star-crossed couple living in an insular commune of arranged plural marriages.

Under Goldenberg’s sensitive, character-driven direction, Richardson transforms Escape from Polygamy’s predictable pastiche of cheesy teen romance into a convincing love story. Julina has palpable, naturalistic chemistry with her love interest, which Richardson deeply mines to maintain the intensity between both characters.

Additionally, she is quietly feisty when left to her own devices, seamlessly indulging in the various archetypes that the movie throws her way. Richardson’s emotional presence feels lightyears away from the general awkwardness of this movie, but the project is a promising precursor to her more fascinating lead roles to come.

Escape from Polygamy is now streaming on Peacock.

The Last Survivors (2014)

Thomas Hammock’s The Last Survivors stylistically and thematically capitalizes on recognizable cinematic tenets of the post-apocalypse, especially the 2010s trend of teens enduring the end of the world. Haley Lu Richardson’s young protagonist, Kendal, lives in a world without rainfall. Now one of the few lingering residents of a bone-dry, inhospitable valley, she struggles against a rapacious warlord who hoards the last of Earth’s water.

However, this surprisingly thoughtful, gritty film sets itself apart from the masses by anchoring its familiar story in Richardson’s subtly commanding lead performance. Kendal is a caretaker, the antithesis of the antagonistic water baron who kills entire families for their resources. The audience easily garners a sense of her toughness and strength through the actress’ honesty and pragmatism.

Notably, while the role requires Richardson to be agile and light-footed, she never portrays Kendal with implausible invincibility. This extends to the character’s emotional breadth as well, and Kendal isn’t exactly unseemly wise for her age either. Instead, we relish in rare reprieves from gunfights and mayhem through her penchant for vivid imagination and heartfelt determination.

The Last Survivors operates through mounting pressure and unease that forces Kendal into seemingly inescapable corners. Yet, although ostensibly cut from a similar cloth as other young-adult survival stories, Richardson’s imposing prowess creates the perfect picture of somberness, angst, guts, and desperation.

The Young Kieslowski (2014)

The Young Kieslowski follows the socially awkward travails of Brian and Leslie (Richardson), nerdy college students who lose their virginity to each other after a chance meeting at a party. Their tryst results in an unexpected conception of twins that threatens to derail their promising lives. They subsequently set off on a confronting personal odyssey, negotiating the uncomfortable questions, truths, and responsibilities of teen pregnancy.

Richardson ensnares us with an engagingly adorable yet achingly abrasive take on her character. The softly melancholic Leslie implores our understanding of the loneliness that taints her witty and endearing outer shell. She remains honest about her desire for bodily autonomy, despite how it conflicts with the inner demons inspired by her dysfunctional home life and conservative Christian values.

Regrettably, a lot of the film plays out from Brian’s closed-off, neurotic perspective, somewhat limiting our understanding of Leslie to his more reductive — as in, sassy — impressions of her. Nevertheless, Richardson deftly ties together Leslie’s chaotic past and fraught present, creating an irresistibly complex young woman whose many contradictions hit home hard.

The Young Kieslowski is available to rent on Amazon.

The Bronze (2015)

In a movie as outrageously crass as The Bronze, Haley Lu Richardson’s effervescent qualities tip towards jovial innocence. The movie spotlights a notorious former gymnast. Her erstwhile claim to fame as a bronze medalist has brought her to a standstill. Now jobless and running low on funds, she begrudgingly begins training fresh-faced, aspiring Olympics contender Maggie (Richardson) in a bid to receive half a million dollars in inheritance money from her old coach.

The sweet, ingenuous Maggie follows an arc reflective of the trials, joys, and temptations associated with being a famous athlete, mirroring the initial success of her egotistical, vitriolic new trainer. Fueled by the fervor of youthful ambition, she demonstrates a pliable, trusting nature that instinctively draws us in, especially during the movie’s first act.

That said, the potential of Maggie’s meteoric gymnastics career coupled with her emotional vulnerability keeps us invested in the film whenever her trainer’s mean-spiritedness and unfeeling disposition rear up. Richardson fully embodies her character’s relentless zest and almost unbelievable wholesomeness. Her vibrant idealism provides the perfect juxtaposition against the virulently but necessarily unlikeable protagonist. The dynamism of their team-up ultimately reaps heartrending results.

The Bronze is now streaming on Starz.

Follow (2015)

Haley Lu Richardson’s first foray into the horror genre leaves plenty to be desired. She has a supporting role in Follow, which tracks a man who wakes up one morning to find his girlfriend shot dead. With the murder weapon literally in hand and no recollection of the night before, he spirals into mind-bending bouts of paranoia and guilt.

The film’s protagonist is a textbook study of an unreliable narrator. Consequently, Richardson doesn’t get very much to work with beyond a certain archetype that tends to react to his unhinged actions. She plays a giggly, adventurous bartender named Viv. At the outset, she shares a kind of flirtatious energy with the main character, seemingly disregarding that he already has a partner.

Infidelity notwithstanding, Viv then gets way more than she bargains for once she enters the guy’s house of horrors. This plot point merely relegates Richardson to a whole lot of screaming, but the actress’ dedication to her character’s unwary integrity allows viewers to find pockets of accessibility into this bizarre story. Hence, Richardson once again functions as a fulcrum of sorts and makes a confusing movie decidedly more cogent.

Follow is now streaming free on Vudu, Tubi, and PlutoTV

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Haley Lu Richardson has a tricky responsibility in Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut, The Edge of Seventeen. The coming-of-age comedy-drama is predominantly about the anarchic Nadine, a teenager who has spiraled into a mess of anxiety and depression in the years since the passing of her father. Richardson floats in and out of the story as Nadine’s reliably sweet childhood friend, Krista. Sadly, their camaraderie is abruptly compromised when Krista begins dating Nadine’s popular, carefree older brother.

The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t really concern itself with Krista’s personal growth — at least, not without contrasting her adventurous and outgoing persona to the angsty awkwardness of its protagonist. In prioritizing Nadine’s point-of-view throughout the film, Krista’s newfound high school popularity appears infuriating and annoying.

However, Richardson’s earnestness calibrates that self-righteous anger without refuting its legitimacy outright. She plays Krista as bubbly and personable, but still very much a flawed girl searching for her own agency. We certainly empathize that Nadine feels left behind as Krista comes out of her shell. Regardless, Richardson’s enthusiastic performance encourages us to adopt a more reasonable outlook beyond a narrow lens, strengthening the film’s heartwrenching throughline of adolescent insecurity.

The Edge of Seventeen is now streaming on TBS and TNT.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)