March 2, 2009
One of the highlights from Film Comment Selects this year was the screening of Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines's underseen cinéma vérité film, Seventeen, a reverent and candid cross-cultural portrait of working class high school students from Muncie, Indiana that was once deemed objectionable for broadcast on PBS (the film had been commissioned as part of a documentary series on middle America) for confronting such (still) relevant social issues as race relations, drug use, unplanned pregnancy, underaged drinking, and dying young. Loosely centered on a headstrong girl named Lynn and her circle of friends, the film opens to the shot of Lynn and her classmates half-heartedly following the teacher's baking instructions, instead, using the hour to socialize with friends. In a way, the cooking lesson serves as a metaphor for the students' casual preparation for their transition into adulthood as well, having been filmed over the course of a year (the span of time subtly framed between varsity season and the senior prom). In one episode, news of Lynn's flirtation with an African American student named John sends the campus gossip mill abuzz, inciting the burning of a cross in her parents' yard and repeated telephone harassment by a young woman who may be one of John's acquaintances. In another episode, fellow cooking student, Robert confirms to the teacher that he is father of a pregnant student's baby, despite having ended the relationship with the girl earlier, and is unjudgingly counseled by the well-intentioned teacher on parental responsibilities. In still another episode, an alcohol-fueled party at Lynn's house becomes a sobering reminder of mortality when a mutual friend is gravely injured after a car accident. DeMott and Kreines insightfully frame the students within the context of home economics and sociology classes that serve to reflect the teenagers' interpersonal relationships, further reinforcing the integral role of the school experience as both a microcosm of an individual's domestic and social environments, and a real-life civics lesson on the importance of contributing to society.