Retrospective: Revisiting the queer teenage heartbreak of 1998’s ‘Edge of Seventeen’
Almost 25 years later David Moreton’s pitch perfect, queer classic still cuts deep
In the summer of 2009, no more perfect a film could have fallen into my lap then David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen. I was only one year older than the film’s main character, Eric (Chris Stafford). And I was contending with my first heartbreak at the hands of my very own Rod (Andersen Gabrych).
In Sandusky, Ohio 1984, 17-year old Eric has just enjoyed the last day of school before he endeavors on a summer job that will change his life.
In this small Ohio town, we get the impression that nothing terribly remarkable ever happens. Or at least not to Eric. His life is simple. He goes to school, he composes music alone in his bedroom, and he’s joined at the hip to his best friend/girlfriend-not-girlfriend Maggie (Tina Holmes).
The morning after school lets out for the summer, baby-faced Eric stands in front the mirror pinning his name tag to his new, many-shades-of-brown uniform. And as he examines his reflection in this putrid get-up, he utters the only word appropriate for the occasion. “Puke.”
But in a matter of hours Eric’s life turns around, because at the less than glamorous, cafeteria style Crystal Shores, Eric meets Rod. Rod (Andersen Gabrych) is the young, beautiful, golden boy of Crystal Shores. Think Robert Redford in a pastel, double-collared polo shirt. And it’s over the course of the summer that these two young men develop a flirtation, which then leads to a night spent alone at a motel. A watershed moment for the still closeted Eric.
The connection I had to the story was – especially at the time — overwhelming. I was newly out, and what the movie gets so right is its exacting depiction of how crucial and dire everything can seem to a young, not fully developed mind. How overwhelming and fair-weather young love can be. And not only love, but someone’s first love. The love that helps to draw you out of yourself — towards being who you’re truly meant to become. It’s the moment in your life when you’re on the crest of adulthood. And your whole world is about to open up.
What Edge of Seventeen gets so right is its exacting depiction of how crucial and dire everything can seem to a young, not fully developed mind. How overwhelming and fair-weather young love can be. And not only love, but someone’s first love. The love that helps to draw you out of yourself — towards being who you’re truly meant to become. It’s the moment in your life when you’re on the crest of adulthood. And your whole world is about to open up.
Todd Stephens’ script is so delicately and precisely written, that even to watch this movie now, incites such a visceral reaction to the material. It all feels so familiar and ripped out of our own experiences. The moment in our lives when we were young, and met our own version of Rod. The slightly older man with experience. The man with tricks. Who knows the right things to say. Who has game. Who tells you he’s going to miss you. He makes sure to call the time you spend together a date. He makes you feel special. He makes Eric feel special.
The film also took on special meaning because it felt like something of an anomaly; a rare artifact. Released in 1998, I happened upon it a little over ten years later, and it felt special to me because it felt singular. And even in 2009, it was.
The dearth of queer love stories in the media, and especially in film has been somewhat troubling.
When we look to television, our representation has grown exponentially even in the last ten years. Modern Family boasted a same-sex married couple. Star Trek has an openly out gay characters and a non-binary character. And then on streaming/cable platforms we’ve had shows like Looking, Elite, Special, and Orange is the New Black that have not only showcased a whole host of characters that take up space on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, they’ve also been authentically cast with actors who bring that lived experience to the role.
Sadly progress has not been as fast in the world of film.
In 2016, Moonlight (with a false start) won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. This win proved groundbreaking as the film being honored explored the slow coming out of it’s main character, and was also a moving meditation on black masculinity. And it took until 2018 for the first gay love story to have been released by a major studio with 20th Century Fox’s Love, Simon. Both of these films were critical and financial successes. Yet despite these major achievements, movie studios still seem very slow on the trigger to greenlight other queer stories.
Billy Eichner is making history as the first out, gay man to write and star in a major motion picture, romantic-comedy titled BROS (slated for a 2022 release, backed by Judd Apatow). This moment is significant because there’s also been major criticism as it relates to the casting of most LGBTQ+ stories.
Seldom is the case when gay actors are cast in gay roles. And while there is much debate about how essential a factor that is, I find it an undeniable factor that is helps to move the needle forward in terms of queer stories being authentically told. Even with Moonlight and Love, Simon, the central performances were played by straight actors.
Part of what made Edge of Seventeen such a monumental experience for me was that I could tell this movie was being made by people like me, for people like me. I saw gay actors playing gay roles and falling in love. And at the risk of sounding horribly trite, I did experience that feeling that all audience members want, to feel seen in the story unfolding before them.
Edge of Seventeen is a remarkable little sleeper of a movie that juggles so many of the ideas and themes that plague people when they’re young. Building your own world, first loves, and identity. And it also serves as a jarring reminder as to what life was like before social media, and before apps. When it was just you, feeling alone and different in your small town. Where if you wanted to find your people, you had to go out and find your people.
While the queer classic may not have broken down the closet door, it wedged its foot in, prohibiting it from being closed. And we can only hope that as we move forward, more queer stories will continue to be authentically told so that audiences see themselves represented in their own stories. And so that they can revel in the feeling I had in watching this movie. It’s as though I had my own personal visit to Oz. I was Dorothy, and by the time the credits ran, my life went from black and white and blossomed into color.
Edge of Seventeen is currently available to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime with subscriptions as well as Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV+ and more.