Seventeen (1983)

Directed by Joel DeMott & Jeff Kreines

Where do you go after being threatened by a no-budget film director with a revolver? That’s right. You go to Muncie, Indiana.

Shortly after defying death while filming the essential Demon Lover Diary, cinéma vérité documentarians Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines found themselves rubbing elbows with PBS. The result was Seventeen, DeMott and Kreines’ entry into the channel’s six-part special on Muncie, The Middletown Film Project. However, Seventeen never aired. And despite winning the Grand Jury Documentary prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival, the film remains completely obscured today. I find that odd.

Because after watching Seventeen, I felt exhausted. I felt invigorated. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Documentary? Not really. Try humanist monument.

Seventeen follows protagonist Lynn as she traipses through her senior year of high school. For the most part. You see, as presented here, high school is simply a fulcrum, a familiar catch-all for the sass, rage, and fatuity that happens to occur in Muncie during the spring of 1980, regardless of age. Perhaps moreso than Demon Lover Diary, what you see in Seventeen is what you get. And what you get, in terms of both content and intimacy, is staggering.

“After that cross got burnt in the yard the other day, my Mom was PISSED”.

Take that. Then, add to it rampant radio hits. Awesome foul-mouthed teens. Parents who (probably) talk with their fists. Teachers who never seem to get it right. Invasive, handheld cameras which follow people through school hallways, classes, locker rooms, carnivals, pot parties, basketball games, bedrooms, make-out sessions, JC Penney’s, car-cruises, fishing trips, faux-gang wars, and best of all, keggers. All of this makes for first-rate entertainment. Yet all of this, like the high school itself, merely serves as an ideal context for something much more substantial.

Like its filmed subjects, Seventeen contains no pretense or modesty. None at all. It meanders. There’s little balance and even less clear-cut movement. For those very reasons, the film mines an uncomfortably pure reality at a level which is rarely, if ever, glimpsed with our own eyes. Imagine the stupefying Heavy Metal Parking Lot crossed with the intent of the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman, but filtered through a racist, contradictory, and oftentimes senseless working class America. Sad. Hopeful. Beautifully human. But that’s still not enough. So, here’s where Seventeen moves beyond the 80s novelties, hilariously quotable teens, and prior references into a solitary space which displaces us. Teaches us. Moves us. Repeatedly.

Where do you go after Muncie, Indiana?

I have no idea where this print originated from, but it addresses my stringent criteria: I can see everyone’s faces and hear what they’re saying. Also, the fat mono sound transformed Bob Seger’s “Against The Wind” into a gunky, lo-fi masterpiece. Color me satisfied.

Nothing, save for the film’s 120 minute runtime. They should have doubled it.

Simply put, Seventeen is incredible. An epic. A beautiful film that exists outside of comparison. Certainly one of the most powerful slices of cinéma vérité ever crafted, this is a two hour portrait of people messing up, hurting themselves (and others), attacking the world, and seeking hope in tomorrow. Right in front of our faces.

Watch it forever.