Edge of Seventeen is a coming of age tale set in the Sandusky, Ohio of 1984. A gay teen will work his first job, lose his virginity and get his heart broken. Todd Stephens’ semi-autobiographical script is frank about sex and cynical about relationships. Critics praised it for a lack of melodrama, finding it more honest than other coming out films. I found it bland. A story this archetypal needed some humor and personality. Only Lea DeLaria’s mentor has any fun, through sheer force of will. Not to be confused with the 2016 film The Edge of Seventeen.
Revisiting 1998’s Get Real convinced me to give Edge of Seventeen another look. Let’s see what I was missing in this spoiler filled recap.
Trigger Warning: The film contains a scene of sexual assault.
Act One: Summer Job
“Edge Of Seventeen offers the most convincing gay teen romance ever put to film.” ~ Scott MacDonald, The AV Club
Scene One: A Restaurant in Sandusky, Ohio. 1984.
ERIC (Our teen leading man): I want to move to New York and write music.
LEA DELARIA (Restaurant manager): Well this summer you’ll be serving fried food to rude customers.
ERIC: Are you the comic relief?
LEA DELARIA: Sort of. I don’t get any jokes but I’m LOUD.
ERIC: I hate my uniform.
MAGGIE (His best friend): I think you look cute.
COLLEGE BOY (A platinum blonde twink): I think so too.
Scene Two: Last Day of Summer
(Eric’s gotten a David Bowie-esque haircut.)
COLLEGE BOY: Nice haircut little boy. Close your eyes. (Strips naked.) Now open them.
ERIC: Aren’t I a minor?
COLLEGE BOY: Not in Ohio.
(College Boy and Eric have sex.)
COLLEGE BOY: Fun. Well… back to my boyfriend. (Leaves.)
ERIC: What was that?
Act Two: Coming Out
Scene Three: Drag Bar
(Eric’s bleached his hair… badly.)
LEA DELARIA (Now bartending): Nice hair. Go dance. Watch out for wolves.
(Stranger rims Eric in the parking lot.)
ERIC: Want my number?
Scene Four: Third Wheel
ERIC: I like guys. But guys only want sex. I want to fall in love.
MAGGIE: Same here. Jerk.
ERIC: Come to the drag bar with me.
GAY FRIENDS: Hi fruit fly! We’re Eric’s underwritten new friends! The screenplay’s more interested in his relationship with you.
MAGGIE: That’s funny since they’ve written me like every scorned woman in every gay teen movie, ever!
(Eric dances with a Twink who looks like the College Boy. Maggie feels neglected and storms out.)
Scene Five: College Dorm
(Eric’s had a Boy-George-esque makeover.)
COLLEGE BOY: Nice makeover. Have you developed a personality?
ERIC: I’m working on it.
(We now get a triggery scene where the College Boy pressures Eric into bottoming. Eric says “Wait. It hurts.” but College Boy ignores him. Eric leaves.)
Act Three: It Gets Better
Scene Six: Going Straight
ERIC: Mom, I’m not gay.
(Eric and Maggie have sex.)
MAGGIE: Disappointing. (Leaves.)
ERIC: Mom, I’m gay.
MOM: What did I do wrong?
Scene Seven: Drag Bar
(Eric is dressed in purple and gold.)
ERIC: I thought coming out made things easier.
(Lea DeLaria cackles.)
ERIC: I know you didn’t get any jokes, but that cackle was legitimately funny.
TWINK: Remember me? We danced in scene four. Nice outfit.
ERIC: Thanks. It expresses my character growth.
LEA DELARIA: I dedicate this song to my friend Eric. (Sings) “Nothing but blue skies from now on.”
ERIC: From Bronski Beat to Irving Berlin? I’ll take it.
“My hope for Eric is not merely that he grows comfortable with his sexuality, but that he becomes a more interesting conversationalist.” ~ Roger Ebert
Who is Eric? His quiet every-man persona doesn’t match with his loud tastes in music and fashion. That may be the point. Bronski Beat, the Eurythmics and hats are the only tools for self-expression he’s got. He’s willing to embrace his sexuality until the assault. Afterwards he seems genuinely sorry that he can’t make things right with Maggie. Eric is a nice boy who ends the film on the right track. Whether he goes to New York or Ohio State University, he’ll find himself and develop a personality.
Todd Stephens would go on to write Another Gay Movie and Another Gay Sequel. Two gross out farces that had less to do with gay movie tropes than with the straight sex comedies of the 80’s and 90’s. There’s a vague hint of those in Eric’s parking lot hook up. The scene is far more risqué than most teen coming out films attempt.
You can read an interview with Director David Moreton here.
Did you see this film when it was released? Is the wicked college boy more believable than the closeted jocks of other teen stories?
If you haven’t gotten your fill of Gen-X teen angst here are some hidden gems.
Sebastian (1995) (aka När alla vet). Swedish coming of age drama. Surly teen is having a meltdown. He insults his parents and trashes his house. It’s because he’s crushing on his straight best friend. Will he face the truth and mellow out? Sebastian’s rage sets this apart from other gay teen films, where boys tend to be sweet and passive.
Show Me Love (1998) (aka F***ing Åmål). Another from Sweden. Gothy Agnes gets a drunken kiss from popular diva Elin. Elin’s mean friends think it’s a joke but romance soon blossoms. The characters look and act like teenagers with all cruelty and adrenaline that entails.
Story of a Bad Boy (1999). Gawky teen pursues the angsty director of his terrible school musical. Makes the risky choice of having the lead be near-silent for the first act of the film, finding his voice as he embraces his sexuality. An interesting mix of vulgar and bittersweet. Julie Kavner (aka Marge Simpson) is a welcome presence as his savvy mother.