Pub date August 15, 2006

“It just ain’t a kegger without Church Mouse.” So says someone at a rager in Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’s controversial Seventeen, and almost 25 years since the movie was first suppressed, my favorite line of movie dialogue in 2006 has arrived. Seventeen isn’t Not Your Average Teen Movie, nor is it your average teen movie. It might be the best movie about teenage life I’ve seen — one that walks high school hallways more convincingly than Frederick Wiseman (let alone Gus Van Sant), and one that makes some of Larry Clark’s underage adventures (certainly his explorations of race) seem trifling.
Complete with a freckled Bobby Brady look-alike chugalugging beer, DeMott and Kreines’s direct-cinema study of students in Muncie, Ind., incited the wrath of Xerox, a corporate sponsor that canceled the film from PBS broadcast and then went on to target it (helped by dronelike journalists) with an effective smear campaign. Basically, Seventeen’s sin was to cut too far into life as it really was (still is?) in the Midwest.
Viewed today, period details in this documentary are 200 proof. In comparison, Hollywood nostalgia is tame and bogus. The filmmakers’ portrait of what they call “high girlishness and boyishness” (emphasis on the high) comes loaded with feathered hair, ’fros, Dorothy Hamill cuts, thin gold necklaces, and jerseys with iron-on letters. The soundtrack is split, with the black kids listening to Smokey Robinson (the magnificent “Being with You”) and Ronald Isley and the white kids largely rocking out to the dreams and nightmares of AOR (where rock ’n’ roll never forgets and you don’t have to live like a refugee if you hold on to me against the wind).
The tension between these sounds matches the human interaction in DeMott and Kreines’s movie, which among other story threads follows a white girl, Lynn Massie, as her romance with a black boy inspires bigots to put a burning cross on her front yard. Critic Armond White once observed that Massie’s life is “the best Debra Winger role that Debra Winger never played,” and if there can be a Searching for Debra Winger, then Massie’s fate also deserves some speculation, because it’s impossible to walk out of Seventeen without wondering what happened to all these teens — and their babies. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Tues/22, 7:30 p.m.
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk.
(510) 642-0808