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The Edge of Seventeen

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 7 May 1999

  Directed by David Moreton

Starring Chris Stafford, Tina Holmes,
Anderson Gabrych, Stephanie McVay,
Lea DeLaria, John Eby, Antonio Carriero,
Jason Sheingross, and Tony Maietta

Screenplay by Todd Stephens

If John Hughes in his prime had made a coming-of-age-movie about coming out -- kind of a literal Pretty in Pink -- it might’ve looked and felt very much like this energetic, compassionate and sweet-tempered new American independent film that mixes cheese fries and Jimmy Somerville in its saga of young Eric (Chris Stafford) and his search for love and self in the heartland.

In the mundane but magically charged summer of 1984, wide-eyed and polyester-clad Eric is stuck wrangling ribs at the Grub Wagon restaurant in the local amusement park and dreaming of musical stardom in New York (he spends much of his free time noodling on a Moog synthesizer in his bedroom).

Under the brusque but benevolent eye of Grub Wagon manager Angie (lesbian comic Lea DeLaria), the sensitive and confused Eric begins to realize there’s something different in his life: he’s in a closet and needs to come out. But as teenagers will do, he makes a series of disasterous decisions that lead to joyless and exploitative liaisons with Ohio State student Rod (Anderson Gabrych), an unnamed patron of the local gay dive-cum-cabaret, the Universal Fruit & Nut Bar Company (also managed by Angie), and even his faithful and adoring confidant Maggie (Tina Holmes), who is awkwardly seduced by Eric in a desperate, last-ditch attempt at heterosexuality (their pain and confusion give the film a strong emotional resonance).

Throughout these adventures Eric becomes more and more enamored with the music of the day, until influenced by the music of Boy George, Annie Lennox, Toni Basil and the like he emerges a gawky New Romantic, complete with puffed up hair and eye-liner. A warm, if somewhat hurried finale among the caricatured denizens of the Universal Fruit & Nut Bar Company (featuring DeLaria belting out "Blue Skies") brings the story to a pat but snappy close.

Perhaps not surprisingly, co-producer Todd Stephens was inspired to write Edge of Seventeen when he uncovered a cache of keepsakes from his own adolescence (including a bottle of Polo cologne purloined from an early paramour and bits of clothing that ended up on Stafford). "In 1984 the future was shining bright and the concept of AIDS so far away to a smalltown boy," Stephens writes in the movie’s online press material, and it is precisely this sense of poignant nostalgia that permeates the movie.

But what’s a real shocker, given the remarkable consistency of tone in both the acting and the pace of the film, is news that co-producer David Moreton assumed directing chores from Stephens only days into the shoot. "Back home in the reality of Ohio, I stepped out of the director’s chair," remembers Stephens. "I felt I was too close to the material -- and that David would have a more objective eye."

For his part, Moreton’s road to filmmaking had a few detours. "I was an English major as an undergrad and then I worked for awhile." he told IndieWIRE’s Aaron Krach recently. "Then I got an MBA at Wharton and worked on Wall Street. I went through three jobs very quickly after graduate school. It was very apparent to me that it wasn’t the right career. The only thing I ever wanted to do was film. But when I was young I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not what real people do for a living.’" In fact, Moreton’s got a clean, crisp style that eschews frills for narrative focus, never condescending to the characters or their struggles in the face of the often absurdly flamboyant trappings of the era.

In fact, as good as newcomer Stafford and stand-up vet DeLaria are, the film’s true heroes are production designer Ivo Stilin, costumer Ane Crabtree and music supervisor Gerry Gershman, who mesh seamlessly in the creation of a mid-1980s world that is frighteningly yet amusingly real (the original music was composed by Tom Bailey, formerly one third of the Thompson Twins). "For me it was vital to set the film in the 1980s," Stephens explained, "although I knew it would be a challenge for a low budget film. I hoped it would serve as a frame for people to reflect on their own coming of age -- and besides, who can resist Toni Basil?"

Mixing the best elements of goofiness and grace found in such genre staples as Fast Times at Ridgmont High and TV’s "Love American Style" with the unforced sexual frankness of The Incredible True Adventures of Two Girls in Love and Boogie Nights (veracity counts more than sexual proclivity here), Edge of Seventeen is that rare gay-themed movie that downplays the melodramatic histrionics in favor of leisurely character development and in the process makes the lifestyle look like the swellest breakfast club in the world. The film has already garnered audience awards from gay festivals in San Francisco and Los Angeles but has the potential to break out of that specialized niche and speak to anyone who grew up questioning their place in the world. John Hughes knew the universal value of these kinds of stories, and so do the people who made the buoyant Edge of Seventeen.

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