How Old Are You?
Based on Patrick Wilde’s play, What’s Wrong With Angry?, and directed by Simon Shore, this 1998 high school movie tenders the usual mix of teen angst, parental cluelessness, and peer pressures. Set in Blasingbloke (suburban, upper middle class England), it features a charismatic young cast and a slight twist on the standard adolescent sex and identity crises, in that senior Steven Carter (Ben Silverstone) is in the process of coming out.
Now that he’s about to graduate, Steven is tired of hiding what he considers his real identity from his folks and classmates. Despite his social environment, however, Steven is refreshingly comfortable with his sexual preference, funny and self-aware. This makes that social environment seem exceedingly oppressive and retro the kids who populate Dawson’s Creek don’t have nearly this level of consternation when it comes to homosexuality. Steven’s major problem seems to be logistical: he has to cruise the local park for dates, a practice that, for all its temporary excitements, offers nothing in the way of long-term relationships (the dates tend to be married fellows looking for fast and easy one-offs).
At the same time, like all the blond and tanned straight girls in school, Steven sometimes daydreams about gorgeous track star John (Brad Gorton). You might imagine Steven’s surprise when, one day at the park, he’s solicited by an unseen someone in the toilet (they pass notes, for example, “How old are you?”, through a hole between stalls) and this someone turns out to be John. After a few strained silences, they find themselves in Steven’s room, where they wrestle as awkward as any straight teen wannabe couple almost to the point of a kiss. Terrified, John bolts from the premises, only to return at a later date, drunk of course, to consummate the relationship.
Thrilled, Steven agrees to John’s terms, that said relationship must be kept absolutely secret. This agreement is ludicrous, but seems to be the jumping off point for the film’s increasingly overt social critique, which mixes comedy and melodrama in the way that high school movies tend to do. This mix showcases adolescent terror and ingenuity, while targeting adults’ willful and self-contented ignorance.
The parent most in need of enlightenment is Steven’s father (David Lumsden), concerned and attentive as far as his own interests go (the boy’s success in school), but unable to imagine that his bright, hard-working son might be a sissy. Thinking that Steven might just need a standard issue paternal nudge, dad pushes him to complete an essay to be submitted to a local journalism contest, the topic being the current teen experience. Meanwhile, Mom (Jacquetta May) is slightly and stereotypically less dim: she figures out that Steven might be up to something when the cops haul him home from an evening’s tryst in the park.
The only person Steven seems able to talk to is his neighbor Linda (Charlotte Brittain), who is, unfortunately, a bit of a stereotype herself, overweight and both too smart and too sensitive for her peer group. She’s looking for love in the wrong places, for instance, with her smarmy, married driver’s education teacher. Linda’s body and sexuality “issues” would appear to align her with Steven: neither can find the proper, sincerely devoted object of affection that happy endings prescribe. But their friendship is annoyingly trite the fat girl and the gay boy used to allow the characters to “disclose” and identify with each other as outsiders.
Linda also serves as foil for John’s gorgeous but apparently shallow girlfriend (Louise J. Taylor), which lets the former show off her wit and gladly participates in Steven’s schemes to carve out clandestine time alone with John. Some of the boys’ time together comes when John’s parents go away for the weekend and they make use of the upscale digs, with heated pool and good food. In front of people, they act like they’re just “mates,” as during their “photo sessions.” As the school magazine’s official photographer, Steven is assigned to shoot a profile piece on star athlete John (and the lucious pictures stashed in Steven’s room at home provide mom with the necessary final clue that her boy is in love with another boy). This situation is clearly not going to last.
The film’s central tensions have to do with their dual roles in front of friends and parents, as John continues to act straight for his adoring fans at school and Steven worries that he’s bound to be unhappy if they must remain forever closeted. Eventually, he decides to take his own serious outing actions, which lead to the film’s climax, including some unsurprising frictions and reconciliations. John has to act out with violence in front of his teammates; Steven has to do the announcement thing: he makes a speech for assembled classmates and parents declaring his sexuality. But unlike a similar scene in a Hollywood movie like, say, In & Out, this one leads neither to everyone standing up for righteousness and tolerance, nor to happy heterosexual coupling for the secondary characters.
Instead, it leads to a more typical high school ending, the elevation of The Outsiders to moral high ground. Given the fact that high is all about feeling like an outsider whether you are or not, you feel that way at least once in you high school career this might be a worthy end. But it’s also a cop-out. Like In & Out or The Birdcage, Get Real mainstreams gayness in an unthreatening way: the appealing gay character is set up as the audience’s point of identification and the phobes are the obvious villains. This might be considered progress, for now.