Edge of Seventeen

Strand Releasing,

David Moreton

Todd Stephens

Chris Stafford,
Tina Holmes,
Andersen Gabrych,
Stephanie McVay,
Lea DeLaria,
John Eby

Rated R, 99 minutes

Small Town Boy
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, May 2009

I'm going to say this right upfront. Edge Of Seventeen is one of my all-time favorite gay films. Coming out/coming of age films can, at times, be a dime a dozen but this one hits all the right notes. One of the pitfalls that I've found, while writing about queer cinema history, is the sad realization that a film that I thought was so groundbreaking a decade ago sometimes has aged as badly as Thunderbird wine. Allowances can be made but not always. I recently revisited Edge Of Seventeen and found that it holds up beautifully.

The setting is Sandusky, Ohio in 1984. Eric (Chris Stafford) and his best friend, Maggie (Tina Holmes) are on their way to a summer job at an amusement park. A camera pan through Eric's bedroom (Annie Lennox posters on the wall, a statue of Mae West, a picture of Billy Idol) has already established that we have a budding rebel queer teen on our hands. That, and he hates his uniform ("I look like 1977. Brown plaid?") Their boss is a lesbian party animal named Angie (comic Lea DeLaria) who tells them that, as food service workers, they are the lowest of the low but who cares because "we are going to have the motherfuckin' summer of our lives!" This will certainly be a summer that Eric never forgets - especially when he meets Rod.

Rod (Andersen Gabrych) is a year older than Eric and is all set to start college in the fall. Rod's gay-dar goes off as soon as he sees Eric and he begins to flirt with him big time. Joining him at lunch, he asks Eric if Maggie is his girl friend. When he answers, ambiguously, "No, not really... I don't know," Rod grins and says his ex-girl friend's name is Donny. Eric spills his drink and makes a hasty exit stage left. It's time to be dazed and confused. He and Maggie have been best friends and soul mates for a long time but, to quote John Mellencamp, "hold on to 16 as long as you can / changes coming round real soon make us women and men." Maggie is clearly in love with Eric and he is realizing that he is attracted to Rod but terrified to act on his impulses.

Meanwhile, the summer is passing by and Eric is missing the ride of his life. Eric and Rod continue exchanging looks while washing dishes. Horseplay with Rod and a can of whipped cream in a storeroom almost results in their first kiss but they are interrupted when the door suddenly opens and Maggie walks in. At a party that Angie throws for her workers, a drunken Maggie falls on top of Eric and starts making out with him while Rod - who is sitting next to them on couch - takes advantage of the situation and slips his hand down Eric's pants. The look on Eric's face, after he realizes what just happened, is priceless. Finishing their last day on the job, Rod finally makes his move ("Hey little boy... You wanna get out of here? Say good-bye?") and the two lads head off to a diner and then to a hotel room. Once Eric's embarrassed giggling finally stops, Rod begins to undress his new acolyte. The frightened little boy quickly becomes a man and this is one of the most romantic - and hottest - scenes of young love ever filmed. "You'd make the coolest boyfriend," Rod says with a smile as the screen fades to black.
Rod goes off to college and Eric begins his senior year. His experience with Rod, which he keeps to himself, has removed his inhibitions. His haircuts become more and more outlandish (Flock of Seagulls anyone?) and his wardrobe becomes very MTV pansexual. He attends a party with Maggie and asks her to make up his eyes with eyeliner. Somebody asks him, "Who cut your hair? Boy George?" When he loses himself in a solo dance, everyone begins to stare. Another boy calls him a queer and he flees the scene in tears...
....and arrives at a local gay bar called The Universal Fruit & Nut Co. It happens to be owned and run by his boss from the summer, Angie. (Okay, this coincidence sounds contrived but she is a great character.) Angie, quite fetching in a man's suit, is thrilled to see him, fixes his mascara, and introduces him to her best pals. Eric is finally in his element but there's danger lurking on the horizon. He gets drunk and allows himself to get picked up. Expecting romance, he finds himself not seeing paradise by the dashboard light when they do it in the man's car. Then, still drunk, he calls Rod only to discover that his college boyfriend is not his boyfriend. Rod hangs up the phone and Eric is devastated. With nowhere else to turn, he tearfully comes out to Maggie. "I don't know what the fuck I am," Eric sobs. The look on his face is heartbreaking - but so is the look on hers. While she hugs him and tells him he's still her best friend, the look of defeat on her face is unmistakable; she has just realized that the man she loves can never be hers.
There is a lot more but, for first time viewers, I don't want to give away the entire film. For those who have seen the film, or don't care if they know everything, there will be a second part to this review, clearly marked as Spoilers, so that I can discuss the other reasons why this film is so exceptional.
Eric is a totally believable kid and Chris Stafford does a wonderful job bringing him to life. He perfectly captures the kid's geeky awkwardness and confusion. The motor driving the film is his charm; his gift for subtle comedy is excellent but he also delivers a great James Dean moment, while holding a telephone receiver, when Rod hangs up on him. Eric is experiencing adult emotions but he's still a boy. He is feeling his way through a life that he doesn't understand which both fascinates and terrifies him at the same time. He still retains a certain innocence; he blossoms while expressing himself through outrageous fashion but a Duran Duran vest is no replacement for a man's love.
One of the best things about Edge Of Seventeen is that Maggie's tragic story provides a deeply moving subplot as well. Tina Holmes is outstanding as Maggie and hers may be the film's stand-out performance. Her face is a roadmap of subtle and raw emotions as she tries to weather the rollercoaster ride of her friendship with Eric. The relationship between Eric and his mother is nicely handled too and you feel for her as well as she begins to put two and two together. This movie gets all the little touches right, like when Eric buys "The Age of Consent" by queer rockers Bronski Beat and listens to "Tell Me Why" and "Small Town Boy" in his bedroom. If John Hughes had made a gay film in the 80s, it would be Edge of Seventeen.
Todd Stephen's autobiographical script is sharp and right on target. The story is sweet, sexy and sad, and utterly captivating. The 80s soundtrack is terrific, featuring all the songs that perfectly evoke the period like "Obsession," "Destination Unknown" and "Politics of Dancing." The mood is mostly fun but this is also a film that knows when to slow down and really get serious. There are laughs and there are tears, and it is impossible not to be swept away by this film. Some of the stuff in Edge Of Seventeen was not common movie faire back in 1998 and some of it was pretty daring too. Edge of Seventeen is a queer film that succeeds on all levels.
I wish that Todd Stephens had gone on to write more like this but, instead, he is the man behind Another Gay Movie and Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild, two of the most infantile queer films of the new millennium. Oh well, it can't all be Shakespeare. Director David Moreton followed this up with the very bizarre film version of James Robert Baker's schizophrenic book, Testosterone.
Skip all of this if you don't want to know what else happens in the film. Continuing my thesis, one of the reasons that Edge Of Seventeen is so good is that Eric is a convincing teen-ager who commits every mistake that he can possible make as he traverses the whirlpool of coming out.
It's safe to assume that Eric never thought of Maggie as possibly being a girl friend before meeting Rod. Now he's not sure. Am I queer? he is asking himself. This is unthinkable and so, to prove his "manhood," he kisses her. This is enough to confuse Maggie too, who is also growing up and experiencing her first adult emotions. Meanwhile, Eric's head is so messed up that he wastes an entire summer in which he and Rod could have been living a soft porn Harlequin romance novel together.
Rod is adorable; his face is boyish but he is Don Juan in disguise. It becomes clear when Eric calls him at college that Rod was only amusing himself last summer. He even learns that Rod had gotten back together with Donny before their rendezvous at the hotel. With his first taste of heartache he then proceeds to also break Maggie's heart by coming out. Oblivious to what she is feeling, he asks her to meet him at Angie's gay bar. While waiting for her he meets another boy. Jonathan, a university freshman who DJs for the college radio station, is so perfect for Eric that he is even wearing an Annie Lennox t-shirt. "Small Town Boy" - such an appropriate song choice - begins to play. Like most gay boys from the 80s, they both love The Bronski Beat and get up to dance. When Maggie arrives, she sees them kissing and runs away in tears. He runs after her but she wants nothing to do with him.
Eric's screw-ups multiply further. A drunken chance meeting reunites Eric with Rod and they wind up in bed in Rod's dormroom. Another hot tryst ensues but then Rod tells Eric that he wants to fuck him. Eric, still a virgin but ecstatic that he thinks he has Rod back, reluctantly agrees. The look on his face as he submits makes it clear that he was not ready for this yet. And so he has one last burst of gay panic and calls Maggie. He tells her that he's not really gay, he was confused this summer and he wants to have sex with her and be with her always. The sex is, of course, disastrous and he realizes the big mistake he just made. Saying he is sorry doesn't cut it and Maggie is out of there - their friendship destroyed forever. And, as if things couldn't get worse, his mother finds a matchbook from the gay bar in his coat pocket.
All of this make for the most realistic and dramatic teen coming out film that this viewer has ever seen. Yet it never sinks into melodrama and it could have easily fallen into that trap. With great sensitivity, and lots of humor, Edge of Seventeen touched a lot of hearts on its first release and it's still doing a damned good job touching mine today. It's also nice that the film doesn't tie up everything with a red ribbon at the end either. Eric has a good heart to heart with Angie and returns to her bar for the final scene. He even runs into Jonathan again and so it seems like a happy ending is in the works. But, just a few minutes earlier, one of the best coming out to Mom scenes ever filmed unfolded and remained unresolved. Ditto for a scene where Eric sees Maggie by her locker in school and she looks away as soon as she spies him down the hall.
We can surmise that Eric will undoubtedly make peace with his mother - she was too nice and smart a woman for this not to happen (Stephanie McVay also delivers a great performance as Mom. It was painful to see her spoofing this same coming out scene in Another Gay Movie.) Eric will certainly date Jonathan and perhaps even live happily ever after. But Maggie is probably history.

I once wrote that I never wanted to see another coming out story as long as I lived. That was during a time when almost all queer films were coming out stories and I wanted to see another topic - any topic - addressed on the lavender screen. But, as you can see, not all of them are bad and Edge Of Seventeen ranks amongst the best.


More On David Moreton

More On Todd Stephens:
Another Gay Movie
Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild

Tina Holmes also appears in:

Stephanie McVay also appears in:
Another Gay Movie

Andersen Gabrych also appears in:
Another Gay Movie
Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild