Teenage coming-of-age romantic comedies were once exclusively hetero terrain. Homophobic Hollywood couldn’t conceive of a queer Pretty in Pink during the 1980s, when John Hughes reigned supreme at the box office. (We can’t really call Gus Van Sant a gay version of Hughes in spite of all those dewy-eyed boys; his roots were always far from the mainstream, in spite of his recent clumsy efforts to join it.) But savvy indie producers, always on the lookout for fresh trends, have lately produced a whole slew of such pictures. This year’s San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival was so packed with lovestruck babydykes and teen boys in heat that it shouldn’t be long before we see Disney offering its own slick versions of Get Real and Show Me Love.
A recent worthy addition to the genre is David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen. Based on Todd Stephens’s memories of coming out during Hughes Time, when the Eurythmics and Toni Basil resounded through every budding queerboy’s closet and mama’s Maybelline was doing double duty for her “sensitive” son, this well-acted, unpretentious film follows high school senior Eric Hunter (Chris Stafford) as he tries to reconcile the expectations of his alleged girlfriend and “nice” family with his natural lust for boys.
Before going off to college, Eric takes a summer job in a tacky theme restaurant in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. His boss is Angie (Lea Delaria), a bull dyke who rules her charges – and the film, whenever she’s on – with motherly warmth and gutteral wit: “We are foodservice,” she tells them, “we are one step above toilets.” The other major woman in Eric’s life is a figure all too familiar in these dramas: the unwitting fag hag. Maggie (Tina Holmes) is Eric’s childhood sweetheart; she’s tragically devoted and indulgent, in spite of his shifting alliances and increasing lack of interest in her. That his room decorations – including a full-length picture of Annie Lennox and a bust of Mae West – don’t tip her off about Eric’s true yearnings from the outset shows how desperately such characters, here as in real life, want to believe their own fantasies.
Eric’s attention shifts to one of his co-workers, hunky out blonde Rod (Andersen Gabyrch), who shamelessly flirts with him. When they finally do make it, in a motel room, the scene is not just hot in itself; it’s also a repudiation of decades of furtive, dark, desperate cinematic homo couplings. The camera lingers lovingly on their foreplay, as if the image is simply too sweet and sexy to opt for the cop-out cutaway. Not surprisingly, Eric is nervous, but the worldly Rod makes him slow down to savor, as the audience will, his very first seduction.
Eric’s infatuation with Rod is doubly problematic: it awakens him to certain unpleasantries about life when Rod unceremoniously dumps him, and it gives him a taste of a world that, however difficult, he must claim as his own even while his past life and support systems crumble. Not that the film is overly grim. The director has lots of fun tracing Eric’s descent or ascent (depending on who’s watching it happen) into fearless queerness with an amusingly elaborate series of costume and makeup changes. He embraces to almost clownish effect the androgynous trends of British and American glam rockers in the ’80s.
He also makes the crucial connection with the local gay bar and is taken under the wing of a group of seasoned queens who fuss over and protect him even while forcing him further out of his closet. In one of the film’s most jolting scenes, when an already depressed Maggie comes to meet Eric at the bar, one of the queens commandingly screams for all to hear: “So you’re Eric’s fag hag!” That the film’s overall tone is reserved makes this sudden rupture all the more unsettling.
The irresistible Delaria is the film’s heart, in spite of her limited screen time; she’s a queer mother-hen not unlike Jennifer Tilly in the more flashy Relax…It’s Just Sex. But the acting throughout is solid without being showy. Chris Stafford brings credible naiveté and earnest confusion to his role as queerboy on the edge. Anderson Gabrych has his moments as the sexy cad who abandons Eric with the same scary energy he put into pursuing him. And Tina Holmes quite nicely sketches in the doomed fag hag. The film gains from its use of location shooting in the town where writer Todd Stephens actually came out: Sandusky, Ohio. The fact that cast and crew had to hide the fact that they were making a queer-themed film speaks volumes about how far we haven’t come since the ’80s. Even Stephens’s gay bar, the Universal Fruit and Nut Company, had to be recreated; it was replaced in real life by the headquarters of that paean to incipient patriarchy, Junior Achievement.