Diane and I watched the cinéma vérité documentary Seventeen last night. I ordered the DVD two weeks ago based on the Amazon description, which describes it as “the unvarnished story of a group of seniors in their ultimate year at Muncie’s Southside High School, hurtling toward maturity with a combination of joy, despair, and an aggravated sense of urgency.” It also notes that it won “the first Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival” and was deemed too controversial to air on PBS.
The Muncie in question, I should explain, is Muncie, Ind., a small Midwestern city that gained a semblance of notoriety in 1929 when it was the focus of Robert and Helen Lynd’s sociological study of a typical American community, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture, and again in 1937 for their Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts.
Scheduled to air on PBS during the spring of 1982 as part of the Middletown series, a follow-up of sorts to the long-ago Lynd studies, it was yanked from the schedule due to a controversy concerning its content and claims that at least some minors may not have fully appreciated the ramifications they could face from appearing in it. Also, if this contemporaneous New York Times report is accurate, there were questions about whether filmmakers Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines influenced at least some of what they document. At one point, for instance, pie-eyed Lynn – the film’s central protagonist – is in bed and talking to Joel, who’s behind the camera, as if she were a good friend, which raises doubts about the veracity of the fly-on-the-wall experience; and at a house party full of underage revelers, Kreines is heard offering to contribute a few bucks to a beer run when the keg runs dry.
Anyway, after being nixed by PBS, Seventeen took the theatrical route, where it won praise from critics and snared that Sundance award. But I never heard anything about it, then or in the decades since, until searching for documentaries about the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were an odd time, when last-wave baby boomers and first-wave baby busters (aka Gen Xers) came together as the unique FM subculture known as Generation Jones.
In any event, the early 1980s turns out to be the 1980-81 school year; and the film opens with an interminable Home Ec class that sets the tone for what’s to follow. The first half focuses primarily on Lynn, who’s white, and her troubled relationship with a black classmate, John. The troubles aren’t just between the two of them, however. At one point, Lynn’s mom mentions that a cross was burned in their front yard the night before, but seemingly shrugs it off as a nothing event. She is perturbed, however, by harassing phone calls from John’s friends, who dislike the idea of him seeing a white girl, and soon enough both she and Lynn are talking about how they’ll defend themselves with a gun, if necessary. In the second half, after breaking up with John, Lynn begins dating a white kid, Keith, and hanging with a crowd that drops the N word with malice – likely the children of those who burned the cross in her yard.
The kids, in essence, are adrift; what they contemplate about the future is anyone’s guess – and for a documentary about high-school seniors, that means it’s rudderless, too. Just about every high-school senior I’ve known or met is looking ahead – some with hope, others with dread, but all dream of what’s to come. Aside from the unlikeable subjects, however, the only constants are the drinking, drugging and racy/sexual talk, much of which is braggadocio that, at least to me, seems spoken in hopes of shocking the cameraperson.
With graduation closing in, a social studies teacher – in the only class beyond Home Ec that’s shown – observes that success in life is “nothing more than a combination of hard work and luck.” The same is true, to an extent, for these sorts of documentaries. Hard work is much in evidence, but luck is not – the cameras capture the dregs of high-school life. The only scene that came close to moving me was towards the end of the film, after Keith learns that his good friend Church Mouse succumbed to injuries sustained in an auto accident; he calls into a radio station and requests a song in his pal’s memory – Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” Grief is not an experience readily captured on camera, but it’s here and it’s real.
Seger’s music – “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the second side of the Night Moves album, plus “Horizontal Bop” – plays prominently in the background of several scenes, either via the radio or someone’s turntable, which speaks much to his popularity at the time. Tom Petty’s also heard, plus Wings, Motown and assorted other known songs. It is somewhat cool hearing the music as it was often heard at the time.
Overall, though, I’d hoped Seventeen would or could serve as a metaphor for its era, but instead it’s a look at the lives of outliers. I doubt these kids – at least as they’re presented on camera – reflected their school or Muncie, and they definitely don’t represent the world I knew in suburban Philadelphia. As such, it’s a disappointment – more Real World than real life.