Edge of Seventeen
Dir: David Moreton
Cert: 15 • US: 99 min • TLA Releasing • DVD
Edge of Seventeen is a classic period-piece film about the process of coming out. No matter that it was released in 1998 and the year of the setting is 1984. The social and cultural changes in the landscape of gay rights had changed enormously in those fourteen years. 1984 was, after all, only fifteen years after Stonewall and the emergence of the Gay Liberation movement. It was the year in which the former b-movie actor Ronald Reagan was re-elected to the presidency of the United States. Yes, re-elected. Orwell’s 1984 it was not. It was more Kafka. The US was undergoing yet another of its periodic conservative backlashes, as was Britain, the source for so much of the soundtrack to Edge of Seventeen. The 1980s was a time in which mainstream British pop had a subversive edge that it has yet to regain. And it is in the culture clash of conservatism and rebellion that the story of Eric is told.
The year is 1984, and the setting is Sandusky, Ohio. Eric (Chris Stafford) and his friend Maggie (Tina Holmes) go to work for at a restaurant in the local amusement park for the summer. Although the significance is not clear to either of them, their singing of Toni Basil’s ‘Mickey’ on their way to work sets up the sexuality of each. Or at least it does for Eric. This is Ohio, remember. They are inducted by loud-mouthed boss Angie, played by the wonderful Lea DeLaria, who tells them that they are going to have “the motherfuckin’ summer of our lives!”. Then Eric meets Rod (Andersen Gabrych) whilst Maggie moves forward in the dreamland where she assumes Eric to be the best-friend-potential-boyfriend.
The first time that Eric and Rod look at each other the shock is electric. The tension in the scene manages to recall the pleasure and the pain of adolescent attraction. Rod is a year older than Eric and about to go to college. He is also fully aware of his sexuality. It just oozes from him, which is in direct contrast to the awkward Eric. Their first conversation is about music. Eric declares his passion for Annie Lennox. “Annie Lennox is a freak,” Rod shrugs, and adds that he is more into Madonna. The warning bells should ring here. It is the superficial material girl meets the intellectual Scottish rebel. Really, compare the early Eurythmics’ lyrics to those of Madonna. Anyway, Rod asks if Maggie is Eric’s girlfriend; and when Eric asks if Rod has a girlfriend he says yes, his name is Danny.
It is to the credit of scriptwriter Todd Stephens that he manages to sustain the tension between Eric and Rod, and that sense of reaching toward the fulfilment of possibility, until the end of the summer. It is then and only then that the two get together. And this is where Eric’s story really starts. It is not a case of boy meets boy, boy comes out, boy falls in love with boy and that’s a wrap. It is only at this point that Eric learns what the coming out process means, and all the elements of his life that it encompasses, from his social life, school life to his family life.
The story that follows is in all probability eternal. Unless human nature is overhauled in a utopian Star Trek: The Next Generation way, and a mass aggression-colonic results, there will always be conflict inherent in the coming out process. Mainstream society is pretty much guaranteed to remain heterosexual, no matter what warnings are issued by crazed right-wing Christians. There is always going to be a battle, although in 1984, a time in which there were no real role models in the mainstream media and gay was more hidden than it is now, it was certainly harder. Edge of Seventeen shows this, but it does not labour the point. The focus is on Eric and his coming to terms with his sexuality and what it means to his place in the world.
There is something about this brand of film in which the cinematography, and the direction, neither stands out nor detracts from the story. It is not confined to the static over-over two-shot of late ‘90s television but neither does it have the majestic sweep of 35mm. It is in fact comforting not be played with by the direction but have it do the job of telling the story. It does not put the medium over and above the content of the medium.
Edge of Seventeen is scripted by Todd Stephens, who went on to write and direct Gypsy 83, the amusingly mocking Another Gay Movie and its tragically bad sister Another Gay Sequel. The film captures the possibility of youth, and the edginess of that conservative decade the 1980s. The tracks by Yazoo, Thompson Twins, and Bronski Beat are for anyone who lived through the era a reminder of how conflicted a time it was. It is the perfect setting for a coming out story. Edge of Seventeen, moreover, avoids the pitfalls and clichés of the coming-out genre. It is touching, heartfelt and heart warming. It leaves you with a wonderful feeling of hope.