A perceptive, accomplished seriocomedy, “Edge of Seventeen” feels like a gay-p.o.v. version of the deft early-to-mid-’80s John Hughes teen pics, even revisiting their era for trendy (but well-deployed) nostalgia value. Also reminiscent of both the American “Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” and Brit “Beautiful Thing” in its appealing young players and humorous yet delicately felt adolescent coming-out portrait, pic should score similarly well in urban centers, with bright select-export and vid prospects to follow.
Cute Midwestern 16-year-old Eric (Chris Stafford) is introduced psyched-up for his first real job — slinging ribs ‘n’ ‘taters in a brown-checkered polyester uniform at an Ohio theme park’s Grub Wagon restaurant. Disillusionment is offset by Ohio State hotel-management student Rod (Andersen Gabrych), whose flirty, forward attentions push Eric toward a sexual-identity awakening — capped by an idyllic, romantic (albeit motel-set) first sexual experience.
That episode pushes Eric’s formative yearnings into overdrive. This being 1984, he increasingly remakes himself in New Wave terms (punky-short dyed hair, mascara, thrift-shop garb) while pining for Rod. Latter, however, proves emotionally distant after their summer fling.
Stuck in his small town for one last high school year, Eric discovers a nearby gay bar (presided over by his erstwhile Grub Wagon manager, jolly dyke Lea DeLaria), while uneasily maintaining a close relationship with adoring best-friend Maggie (Tina Holmes). Various disillusionments provoke his coming out to her; but Eric hasn’t gauged how she’ll interpret this news as a blunt personal rejection.
Pic works nicely on several levels — as a deft, comic ’80s flashback (ballasted by canny retro synth-pop soundtrack choices), as a sweet but thorny growing-pains saga and as a subtle critique of less attractive gay-social-scene attributes (via Rod’s irresponsibility, plus the Fruit & Nut Club bar’s amiable yet boozy-pathetic regulars).
Despite ample humor, film never condescends to the mercurial fragility of teenage emotions. Eric’s ultra-normal family life is also neatly delineated, especially his rapport with a supportive yet increasingly exasperated mom (Stephanie McVay). Close is upbeat, but leaves several character threads credibly unresolved.
Perfs ideally capitalize on scenarist Todd Stephens’ offhand depth, with youthful leads Stafford and Holmes (looking like a junior-edition Meryl Streep) giving exceptional naturalistic turns. McVay is also fine as a surface-stereotypical homemaker whose waters run deeper than one might expect. Fast-rising lesbian comic DeLaria (currently legit-touring in “Chicago”) scores a support-role triumph and gets to show off Billie Holiday-esque pipes in a closing bar rendition of “Blue Skies.”
First-time feature director David Moreton’s tech package is confident, if stylistically modest; smart pacing easily maintains interest in a not-unambitious arc of incidents and personality growth. Unpretentious, funny and touching, “Edge of Seventeen” rates as a quintessential Amerindie sleeper.