TODD HAYNES' VELVET GOLDMINE WAS AN INTELLECTUAL'S fevered love letter to his youth, to the era — the glam '70s — that shaped his politics, aesthetic and world-view. It was an art-house celebration of queerness as construct; the actual sweat and messiness of sex were telegraphed in long shots, lusty glances and fade-outs. Edge of Seventeen, a small-town, blue-collar companion piece to Velvet, is in many ways a braver, riskier film. Directed by David Moreton, it drops down a decade to the kitsch-curdled '80s, stripping away all the easy jokes to retrieve a much-maligned cultural moment. The film extols a period that, ironically, drew heavily from glam's gender politics while issuing a crop of stars whose techno-pop tunes aimed squarely for the mainstream. MTV was broadcasting gender-bending images of femme men and suit-clad women, and the music, though absolutely disposable, also spoke to loneliness, isolation and the trembling uncertainty of sexual identity.

When the movie opens, 17-year-old Eric (Chris Stafford) — Annie Lennox fanatic, aspiring musician, the oldest of three children in his family — is about to start the first day of his summer job as a food server at the local amusement park. “You do know I work at a restaurant?” he asks his mom, as she hands him the bologna-and-ketchup sandwich she's made for his lunch. His best friend, Maggie (Tina Holmes), clad in matching brown-plaid polyester uniform, is also starting work at the park; the two sing along to Toni Basil's “Mickey” as they drive in. Standing in a huddle, listening to their crew chief, Angie (Lea Delaria), blast through the inane demands of their jobs, the laughing Eric and Maggie have no idea how life-altering this insignificant job will really be.

Although the butch, boisterous Angie quickly takes on the role of confidante and surrogate mother figure, the catalyst for Eric's sexual awakening is his blond, generically attractive co-worker, Rod. A student at Ohio State, Rod relentlessly teases Eric, batting his eyelashes and rolling out come-hither looks. “You'd make the coolest boyfriend,” coos Rod to the stunned Eric, who seemingly has given no thought to his own sexuality. After successfully seducing the boy, Rod dumps him, and the confused Eric slides down a painful spiral of self-realization. For every victory (something as simple as pulling off a spiky new haircut), there looms a potentially crushing obstacle. As he navigates his way through — and toward — his burgeoning underdog status, Eric frequently falls under that crush, unwittingly pulling others with him.

Working from a wise, tender script by Todd Stephens, Moreton fashions a wonderfully accurate sense of time and place: The music, clothing and even the way Eric dances are lifted intact from the '80s. The depiction of working-class Ohio is dead-on in the details, sans condescension or cloying irony. Most important, though, is the movie's knowledge of human nature. Too many recent queer films inadvertently bolster the theory of gay men as infantilized, woman-hating creatures. The women in those films are all supportive, understanding beings who either have no lives of their own, or quickly abandon those lives to tend to the gay boy, all the while spitting wisecracks and flashing protective talons. Edge is wiser to the truth. After being let down by Eric one time too often, Maggie angrily exits his life. And there's no more wrenching moment in the film than when Eric, having finally come out to his mother, tearfully begs her, “Mom, please look at me,” and she can't.

Despite the raw, sometimes emotionally brutal, depiction of the coming-out process, Edge of Seventeen is a far cry from being a roll call of queer misery. There's a lot of sweet humor, as well as a sexual frankness that encompasses everything from Eric's knee-melting pleasure at receiving his first blowjob, to his devastation at realizing he's just given himself to someone who was dismissing him even in the throes of fucking. Stephens and Moreton know that if Eric's triumphs are to mean anything, there needs to be an honest telling of the costs. Through Angie, Eric finds a family of old-school queers and trannies, and if their lives are a little too booze-soaked, a little bleaker in the subtext than we'd like, they give to Eric the gift of family. The acting is wonderful throughout, and Stafford is near-flawless. Watching him shift by subtle degrees — not just in the character's overall evolution, but in the way he has to constantly readjust his bearings while leading a double life — is to witness one of the better performances you'll see this year.

Directed by DAVID MORETON | Produced by MORETON and STEPHENS | Released by Strand Releasing | Selected Theaters

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