Boys to men

"Edge of Seventeen," a film about coming out and of age in the early '80s, trumps the current crop of nice-guy gay films.

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sweet films about young gay boys are enjoying an art-house vogue these days. The flood of syrup's enough to set a jaded queen to pining for Genet and Fassbinder, but who said the fight against homo defamation was about depth or finesse? Like the rest of the moviegoing public, queer folk crave youth and romance, something indie producers in the 1990s finally got wise to: Out with the psycho killers and in with buff boys and sensitive lads.

Among the current crop of crowd-pleasers are "Get Real," about a British teen's love affair with a closeted high-school jock, and "Trick," in which a musical-writing New Yorker falls for a hunk of a go-go dancer. "Get Real," currently in release, has the better script, but "Trick," which opens in July after screening at a few gay festivals, has Tori Spelling, of "Beverly Hills 90210" (believe it or not, this is a plus). Trumping both entries is "Edge of Seventeen," written by Todd Stephens as a remembrance of things from his gay past.

Eric, the film's protagonist and Stephens' alter ego, falls into the sensitive-lad category. A precocious jumble of delusions played by Chris Stafford, Eric has just come around to the notion that he's attracted to men. As "Edge" begins, it's 1984, the summer after his junior year in high school. He's gotten a job as a "grubber" (food handler) at an Ohio amusement-park cafeteria run by the amiably butch Angie (Lea DeLaria). Mom celebrates a Kodak moment on her son's first day on the job, and Toni Basil's "Mickey" blares on the car stereo as he drives to the park with his best friend and fellow grubber, Maggie (Tina Holmes, whose face alternately recalls Meryl Streep and Ricki Lake).

Ripe for the picking and yearning to be plucked, Eric allows himself to be seduced by Rod (Andrew Gabrych), a college-age co-worker. Eric's first sexual encounter is among the film's most carefully thought-out sequences; Stafford is by turns awash with giddy expectation, inchoate lust, utter cluelessness and ripples of ecstasy. I'm making their tryst sound hotter than it is, but the range of emotions they communicate is a tribute to the actors, especially Stafford. The use of a mostly static camera and shots of fairly long duration lend the scene a real-life, real-time quality. This keeps things from getting mushy, though for all the attempts at verisimilitude the sequence still comes off a tad calculated. One feels almost as though Stephens has supplied his director, David Moreton, with a checklist of behaviors and sentiments to portray rather than a completely integrated scene.

This studied quality becomes even more pronounced during a later moment when Eric's mother (Stephanie McVay), who'd sacrificed her interest in music to raise a family, sits wistfully at her piano. She's disillusioned with her son, who's been staying out late, dressing weird, and overdosing on peroxide and hair dye; when she begins tickling the ivories, plot seems to motivate the deed more than character. You can see why Stephens wrote the scene, but McVay doesn't really pull it off, and it's not her fault.

For the most part, though, the awkward patches, which often mirror the younger characters' naiveti, paradoxically add to the film's charms. An unequivocal delight is the soundtrack, a canny compendium of '80s hits whose lyrics highlight the action. Missing Persons, the Eurythmics, Bronski Beat, Animotion, Flock of Seagulls and the Thompson Twins all chime in -- just about every group you might imagine except for Culture Club, though there is a Boy George reference. The attention to musical detail pays off in a marvelous, unself-conscious sense of time and place. (I have to credit any film that makes me nostalgic, however mildly, for the Reagan era.)

By the 1980s, after a decade or so of gay parades and protests and countless Phil Donahue talk-show segments about homosexuality, even kids in the Midwest could come out to their parents without the roof caving in. Unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily make coming out to one's peers or oneself -- or, for that matter, learning about sex itself -- any easier. From time immemorial, for youths of all orientations, the first few stabs at sex often turn out to be troubling predicaments rather than the romantic events they've imagined, something "Edge" conveys quite well.

In the end, "Edge" tells a timeless story. Long before the '80s, gay guys tortured their best girlfriends the way Eric does Maggie. Partly to prove he's not a fag and partly because he has conflated sexual attraction and deep friendship, he goes to bed with her, with predictably disastrous results. Nor was that decade the first time a kid found both terror and salvation in the gay community, where for every cad like the one who diddles Eric in a parked car and then can't wait to get rid of him, there's a compassionate lesbian like Angie to provide solace and guidance.

The ebullient DeLaria had just completed her career-making turn as Hildy in the Shakespeare in the Park production of "On the Town" when shooting on "Edge" began. The comedienne, who jacks up just about every scene she's in, gives the film its star power. In a few cases, she could have used an extra take -- doubtless a luxury on the budget of this production -- but like its writer and director, she more than gets by on spunk and energy.

By Daniel Mangin

Daniel Mangin is a writer and editor living in New York.

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