Edge of Seventeen (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Edge of Seventeen” continues where standard coming-out-of-the-closet comedy-dramas usually end which makes this picture, written by Todd Stephens and directed by David Moreton, an instant standout in the sub-genre. Too many LGBTQIA+ movies, especially those designed for mainstream consumption, are forgettable precisely because they end up following the same parabola while reaching alarmingly familiar conclusions. It is rare when a film like “Edge of Seventeen” comes along for it has courage to tell you that coming out to your family and friends does not magically turn your life around. It provides the possibility that things can get messier and more complicated—which is okay because adapting to change takes time. It is more interested in presenting reality than providing a false sense of security.
The story revolves around Eric (Chris Stafford), a soon-to-be senior in high school who gets a summer job at a theme park in food service. There, he meets Rod (Andersen Gabrych), an Ohio State University student who seems genuinely interested in getting to know Eric. Although the screenplay underscores the attraction felt by the two men, this is no ordinary romance. The feelings are real, but the writing proves sharp in that for there to be convincing drama, the two must be separated. Otherwise, the story becomes about the couple rather than Eric who struggles with self-acceptance. The presence of the Rod character is solely meant to jolt Eric’s latent homosexuality. It is beautifully done, quite elegant and unexpected. And it is right.
Another insight the writing provides is that there is a crucial difference between coming out and accepting one’s sexuality. Coming out can be easy, for some. But looking inside—really checking in, asking questions, and being honest—that’s far more challenging. It poses the question: How can one so easily accept being different—being gay—when society trains you to believe that being different, odd, strange—queer—is inferior to being “normal”? How can you fit in when the standard—the expectation—is heterosexuality and heteronormativity? I loved how this film is about ideas first rather than comic strip situations that characters find themselves in then having them react.
Notice how the film takes the time to show conversations—no score or soundtrack playing in the background—that look, sound, and feel real. Standouts are exchanges between Eric and his mother (Stephanie McVay): how he shares with her a song he’s been working on, what she thinks about it, and if she regrets dropping out of college (she studied music) in order to start a family. We also spend ample of time with Eric and his best friend Maggie (Tina Holmes), who is obviously attracted to him. We see them being called names at school, at parties, and other social gatherings. And we also see why. They don’t dress or act or try to force themselves to get along with their peers. We get a sense that they’re outcasts even before they’re called freaks. Naturally, this friendship is tested when Maggie learns about Eric’s secret. I appreciated how it goes in unexpected and occasionally painful directions. I appreciated its honesty in suggesting that sometimes even the strongest friendships are unable to weather certain storms.
“Edge of Seventeen” is not for viewers who are 1) looking to feel good about themselves and 2) unwilling to go delve deeply in what the filmmakers are actually communicating about the realities of being gay and coming out. The story, like life, is left in an open-ended manner. It trusts us to evaluate where Eric’s relationships might end up based on the knowledge we’ve acquired throughout our time with them. Ultimately, I found optimism in Eric’s story even though it is more bitter than sweet. Eric is only seventeen. He has so much more to experience. Why box him into a defined ending just so we can feel good? The astute and penetrating filmmakers really thought about what they wished to accomplish—and it shows.