Let's Hear It for the Boy
As a high school senior in 1989, Mike O’Donnell (Zac Efron) has everything going for him. Massively popular, great looking, and a star athlete, he’s also a genuinely nice guy, as evidenced by his friendship with local nerd and walking bulls-eye, Ned (Tyler Steelman). All this makes him unprepared for crisis, as when his girlfriend Scarlett (Allison Miller) drops a bombshell just as he’s about to play the basketball game his college scholarship dreams depend on.
Cut to 20 years later. Mike (now Matthew Perry) is a profoundly disappointed man. On the verge of divorce with Scarlett (Leslie Mann), living with Ned (Thomas Lennon), passed over at his job, and alienated from his two teen children, Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Sterling Knight), Mike makes no apologies for his desire to return to his perfect past.
He gets to do something like that in 17 Again. Though he’s still 37—with all the wisdom and disappointment that entails—he is delivered into 17-year-old body. He and Ned readily acknowledge Mike’s “classic transformation story,” as well as the requirement that he discover its purpose. Attending high school with his own kids, Mike quickly gets over reveling in his regained youth and virility when he learns that Alex is something of a loser, the target of Maggie’s bully of a boyfriend, Stan (Hunter Parrish). She’s a target too, as Stan is revealed to be sex-crazed. Now Mike’s life lesson is clear: he’ll learn how to be the good dad, to look after his kids. “It’s not about him,” you know, it’s about them.
This isn’t exactly a stretch for Mike, who is, after all, still that genuinely nice guy. We see him reaching out to Maggie and Alex early on, and feel bad for him when they roll their eyes like typical teens. It’s a decent twist that Mike maintains his dadness while being ultra-cool in his teen form, rather than becoming a painfully unhip and muddling adult, the butt of easy jokes. That’s not to say he’s wholly comfortable as a kid in 2009. He’s predictably horrified in Maggie’s Sex Ed class as a basket of condoms is passed around, then makes an unsurprising stand for abstinence. It’s a comic but also loaded scene, as the parent faces his own fears, based on his own traumatic high school experience, surrounded by a room full of teens made irrational by their hormones. The girls who are quick to jump on the abstinence bandwagon and chuck their condoms back in the basket are the very ones dying to jump Mike, his cautionary speech only making him more desirable.
With this new and wiser perspective revealed, it’s only a matter of time before Mike must face another version of that fateful basketball game of 20 years ago. He has to have the opportunity to choose Scarlett again or not, without the pressure of a pregnancy forcing the issue. As much fun as 17 Again has with its young-again reverie, the conclusions Mike reaches are not fantastic, but, more accurately, adult. If his bodily transformation reflects his juvenile longings, he really just needs to grow up.
That’s not to say that his conclusions are especially smart or admirable. His solution for Alex’s problems is overly simplistic (“I’ll get you on the basketball team. That’ll solve everything!”) and too obviously projecting his desires and self-image onto his son. But his reconciliations with Maggie and Scarlett are more disconcertingly proprietary, dependent on familiar boy fantasies of girls, that is, they’re vulnerable, naive, and in need of masculine protection and guidance. So, while he has ostensibly discovered that it’s not about him, it still kind of is.