For some people, graduating from high school marks a beginning—a gateway to a wider world filled with opportunities, challenges, responsibilities and joys.
For others, it marks the summit of their lives—and it’s all downhill from there.
Take, for example, Mike O’Donnell, who in 1989 is a hunky, adolescent basketball star. Mike is high school royalty, a swoosh-haired, six-pack-ab’ed fellow who looks a good deal like Zac Efron and is beloved by nearly everyone.
But alas, Mike’s noble life gets, um, thrown for a loop when his girlfriend, Scarlett, announces she’s pregnant—right before the big game, at that. Though a university talent scout is set to offer Mike a full-ride scholarship should he play well, Mike tosses the ball, runs to his paramour and proposes marriage.
“You and me, we’re in this together,” he tells her.
Fast-forward 17 years, and a decidedly grown-up Mike O’Donnell isn’t so sure he made the right decision. He no longer looks much like Zac Efron. More like Chandler from Friends—only older, pudgier and mopier. His wife has filed for divorce. His kids barely tolerate him. He’s been working for a pharmaceutical company for 16 years, but after getting passed over for promotion (again), Mike flips out, crushes his boss’s cell phone earpiece against the wall and summarily gets fired.
‘Tis a precipitous fall from high school aristocracy.
And so it happens that melancholy Mike finds himself haunting the halls of his old high school once again, looking wistfully at his 1989 basketball team photo. Naturally, he wonders what might’ve been.
“Of course I want to live in the past!” he tells a passing white-haired janitor. “It was better then!”
Little does he know that the janitor does more than just push mops. A few hours later, the custodian winds Mike’s chronological clock backward and transforms him into—behold!—Zac Efron again, granting him a second stab at the last 20 years.
When Mike first gets zapped back to pubescence, he figures this “second chance” is all about him. “I have not done anything for me since 1989,” he tells his nerdy best friend, Ned (who, it’s important to recall, hasn’t received the same time-shifting treatment).
But Mike soon concludes that his trip back to high school isn’t so much about him as it is about helping his kids through their own dilemmas. His son, Alex, gets targeted by the school bully. And his daughter, Maggie, is going steady with said bully. So Mike decides to use his new peer-to-peer influence to help Alex discover some self-confidence. And he imparts to Maggie lessons in self-respect, staying chaste and choosing the right guy.
But while those unlikely mentoring relationships clip along, Mike also falls in love with his own wife all over again. He watches with admiration as she tenderly mothers his kids. In the process, he’s able to see her once more as his beloved soul mate—not as the ball and chain that had kept him (he wrongly believed) from reaching his potential.
Granted, the fact that Scarlett’s in her late 30s and Mike appears to be 17 makes this on-again romance feel a little uncomfortable. But in the movie’s ethos, it’s quite sweet. And the two don’t fully get back together until after Mike turns back into his “old” self.
“You’re the best decision I ever made,” Mike tells Scarlett. “I just forgot.”
After researching volumes of comics and sci-fi books (and asking Mike if he is or ever was a “Norse god, vampire or cyborg”), Ned concludes that Mike has been transformed by a “spirit guide”—terminology that sticks throughout the movie. That said, 17 Again owes its plot more to It’s a Wonderful Life than Harry Potter. One scene in particular provides a clear homage to Clarence, the guardian angel in that classic movie.
This coming-of-age-again film is full of humorous moments that revolve around, you guessed it, sexual themes. Quite a few are exactly what you’d expect. But not all of these references to sexuality are entirely negative.
The best example of this is showcased in health class, where the teacher says the school district’s official policy on sex education is “abstinence only.” Then she promptly undermines that official stance: Passing around a basket of condoms, she says that asking high school seniors to abstain is unrealistic. Stan, the school bully and Maggie’s boyfriend, grabs a huge handful, announcing to Maggie and the class, “I have needs.”
Mike, on the other hand, refuses to take any condoms, saying that he’s going to wait until he finds the right girl. He adds he’d rather wait until he’s married and ready to have children. And he slips into a reverie about what a wonderful thing it is to be a father. As he remembers holding his firstborn in his hands, he says, “You hope you can always do right by that little girl.” The classroom is so moved by the speech that most give back the condoms they’d taken. Stan, or course, grabs more: “I’ve got enough for the whole weekend,” he quips, leering at Maggie.
Stan later breaks up with Maggie because she won’t sleep with him. (Before the breakup, though, the pair makes out quite a lot. We also hear that Maggie had intended to move in with Stan after graduation.) “You can have the nun,” Stan tells Mike. “She doesn’t put out, anyway.” Mike comforts Maggie: “One day, you’re going to meet a boy who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”
Things take a briefly icky Back to the Future turn when Maggie starts hitting on Mike (who, you’ll remember, is her father). And when Mike insists they can never, ever be together, Maggie at first thinks Mike is a homosexual. No, Mike insists, he’s just in love with someone else—Maggie’s mother, whom Mike smooches a few minutes later. A startled Scarlett (unaware of Mike’s chronological regression) slaps him and quickly leaves.
Ned shamelessly and suggestively hits on a high school principal, at one point suggestively showing her his rear end. The two get together after discovering a mutual passion for all things geeky: They both speak elvish, for example. “You can plunder my dungeon anytime,” the principal says, and later we see them (clothed) in Ned’s bed (a replica of Luke Skywalker’s land speeder).
Mike (in Efron-mode) is shown shirtless. Several teen girls make passes at him: “Would you ever consider dating a 10th grader?” one pleads. Another suggestively mentions she was kicked off the cheerleading squad for being “too flexible.” When Mike tries to sell them on the virtues of self-respect (boys might like them more, he says) the girls inform him that they’re not interested in respect. “You don’t have to remember my name!” says one.
Elsewhere, someone plucks a bra off a basketball hoop in a driveway after a wild party. Midriff-baring cheerleaders dance suggestively. Scarlett’s best friend reassures her that she still has the “butt of a 12-year-old boy.” We also hear several crude references to male anatomy and one involving Viagra.
Ned mistakes a newly “youthanized” Mike as a home intruder, and the two duel with the swords and light sabers Ned keeps around the house. Both get smacked in the crotch, of course, and we see Mike sitting in the kitchen, an icepack strategically placed on that region. Mike also has two brawls with Stan. He loses both, and one melee gets posted on YouTube. Several other people (Scarlett, Ned and a couple other girls) also slap Mike. Bullies tape Alex to a toilet seat. And, as stated, Mike demolishes his boss’s cell phone earpiece.
Characters misuse both God’s and Jesus’ names. We also hear several uses of “a–,” “douche” and “h—,” with an occasional “b–ch” and “d–n” thrown in too.
Mike’s pharmaceutical boss exhorts, “Go out there and push some pills, my peeps!” When young Mike pops open a beer, Ned quickly snatches it and says, “Unless the spirit guide gave you a fake ID, this is mine.” Ned and the principal share a bottle of wine over dinner. Mike throws a massive party at Ned’s house. And while no one’s actually shown drinking any beverages that are definitively alcoholic, many partygoers appear inebriated.
Mike’s kids don’t show him much respect. Scarlett’s best friend tells her that the first divorce is “always the hardest.” Mike is appalled to hear that Scarlett wants to date again, and he tells Ned that if she lived in Afghanistan, “She’d be dragged through the streets by goats.”
When the principal asks Ned how he got his hands on the new Halo video game early, he confesses that he told the Make-A-Wish Foundation some things he isn’t particularly proud of. A coach calls his players “jockstraps.” Stan locks some students in what looks like a trophy cabinet.
If we could go back in time, what would we change? That’s the central question in 17 Again—a lightweight exercise in sentimental metaphysics that meanders in some problematic directions in search of the right answer.
Before we go any further, let me say this: 17 Again is not particularly great, neither as a piece of art nor as a vehicle for moral instruction. Zac Efron is likable as Mike, but he’s not particularly believable as a teenager going through a midlife crisis. High School Musical, this is not. But in some ways, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
We live in a culture that worships at the altar of youth. We buy anti-wrinkle creams, antioxidants, hair-growth gels, hair-removal products … all in a quest to look and feel younger. The late teens have become a nearly mythical moment in our lives. And let’s face it: Most of us—in some way and at some time—wish we could be 17 again.
Along comes Mike, a guy who’s given that very chance. He returns to high school with everything a guy could ever want. He’s got killer looks, awesome athletic skills, a fancy car and a fat bank account.
And yet he walks into his high school not as a child, but as an adult. He’s learned the value of sexual responsibility (a lesson many of his teenage contemporaries and some of his school’s employees definitely have not). He understands the importance of wisdom and experience. And, as he looks at the world through his suddenly younger eyes, he realizes that all he wants—all he needs—is the adult life he chose and made for himself.
The HSM series talks a lot about friendship and love. But never sex. It talks about living for the moment more than planning for the future. And, for what it’s all about, that’s fine.
But 17 Again takes a different tack. It doesn’t minimize high school’s transformative place in our lives, but it adds a sobering—and in this day and age, pretty unusual—postscript: It’s good to grow up.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.