Portrait of a Teenager
Roughly halfway through Edge of Seventeen, the hero of this romantic comedy-drama, a very likable kid named Eric (Chris Stafford), is confronted by his mother (Stephanie McVay) in the living room of their home. "Are you gay?" she asks him point-blank. And his point-blank answer is "No." I can't think of a single gay person (myself included) who hasn't played out such a scene himself in real life. Yet it's still a shock to see it put up on screen so forcefully. And it's still annoying to realize that there's little chance that most straight moviegoers -- if they choose to attend this film at all, which, things being unequal they likely will not -- are going to understand it.
Look, we all know "the rules." The world is a straight place. And while gays may live in it, they should choose to do so surreptitiously -- over there in Gayland, where no straights roam. Consequently, once you discover you "prefer" (as the straight world would have it) people of your own gender, you're obliged to pack your bags and move to Gayland pronto -- no questions asked.
But the world isn't so neatly structured: Sexuality can't be reduced to a "one of two choices only and no substitutions" menu, and despite the best efforts of the powers that be, no cordon sanitaire exists to separate sexual persuasions in every walk of life. (Remember gays in the military? Well, the military certainly hasn't forgotten about it.) There's only the power of social custom and the force it can exert on housing and hiring practices to hold the line. But as this film demonstrates, the line can't hold forever.
Edge of Seventeen isn't a gay-activist agit-prop film. It's not a tale of homophobic horrors, filled with insensitive parents and brutal schoolmates and ending with a pistol-whipped corpse tied to a fence along a highway. Nor is it a socially conscious polemic about one youth's effort to challenge the establishment. Rather, it's a calm, clear-eyed portrait of a particular kid trying to figure out -- like teenagers of all kinds the world over -- who he is and where he fits in.
Eric is a whole lot luckier than any number of gays, whether from the heartland or elsewhere. His parents love him unreservedly. He has a best friend (Tina Holmes) to confide in. And when he Takes the Plunge and goes to the local gay disco (a far livelier place than any similar establishment in West Hollywood, Chelsea, or Oak Lawn), he walks right into the open arms of the most wonderful lesbian den mother the world has ever known (Lea DeLaria).
Yet for all of this, Eric's troubles aren't minor speed bumps on the road of life. His first affair with a sexy smoothie (played with remarkable detail by the very hot Andersen Gabrych) ends badly. A subsequent fling with a casual pickup is no better. And over and above all this, he fails to face up to the fact that his best friend is desperately in love with him. Everything turns out happily by fade-out time, but not before screenwriter Todd Stephens and director David Moreton have made any number of important points about what growing up gay really means in white middle-class America.
Though it made the rounds of the gay and lesbian film festivals last year, Edge of Seventeen is reaching wide release at a most auspicious moment. The theaters are filled with gay teenage coming-out stories. But they're all British in origin, and none of them deals with sex as frankly and (thank goodness!) as erotically as Edge of Seventeen. And it's at the frontiers of eros that gay push comes to straight shove.
In his refreshingly frank review of Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Spell in a recent New Yorker, novelist John Updike notes: "Perhaps the male homosexual, uncushioned as he is by society's circumambient encouragements to breed, feels the isolated, disquieted human condition with a special bleakness: He must take it straight." Perhaps. Still, gay men don't have a purchase on bleakness, though they certainly know a thing or two about those circumambient encouragements, among other things. Edge of Seventeen goes a long way toward explaining what those other things are all about.
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