Sunday, August 30, 2009

17 Again -- abstinence and self-respect

Director: Burr Steers, 2009.

How many of us haven't wished we could go back and have a mulligan at life? That is the premise of 17 Again.

When we first see Mike O'Donnell (Zac Efron), he is 17 and on the top of the world. He is a senior in high school (not High School Musical, though the first scene makes it appear this will be revisited). He has a cute girlfriend, Scarlett. He is the point guard star of the basketball team. All he has to do is play up to a portion of his potential and the full-ride college scholarship is his. But when his girlfriend whispers something in his ear just before the game starts, his world is turned upside down. She is pregnant. In an act of noble chivalry some would call foolhardiness, he walks off the court to be with her, throwing his college career and dream future away like a deflated basketball.
Cut ahead 17 years and Mike (now Matthew Perry) is living with his best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), the nerd from high school, now a rich and successful software dweeb. Mike has lost his job; he is losing his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) to a divorce; and his two children won't give him the time of day. Depression defined. He has sunk into the pit of despair, living in his lonely world of what could have been.

When he returns to the site of his greatest success, his high school, he runs into a mysterious janitor, who pegs him cold: "High school star, never quite lived up to your potential. Sooner or later you all come back to your old school, stand there and look at the picture of the glory days wondering 'What might have been.' Seems to me you guys are living in the past." Mike replies, "Well, of course I wanna live in the past. It was better there." The janitor tantalizingly offers him a lifeline, "I bet you wish you could do it all over again?" And later when Mike sees him again he is standing on a bridge and jumps off. Shades of Clarence from It's A Wonderful Life, the angel who wants to earn his wings. When he goes to rescue him, Mike falls into a vortex that magically makes him 17 again, but now not then. Like Aladdin's genie it gives him his wish.

Sometimes life feels hard. We look back on what was and wish for yesterday once more. Regrets overflow our souls until we wish we could change the past. We tell ourselves, if only we could do it over we would not make the same mistakes. Everything would work out right this time.

Life is not like that. We don't get any do-overs. We may get second chances where we are at, but we cannot second-guess choices and decisions made a year, a decade or a lifetime ago. History is made with every tick of the clock, and history cannot be unmade. But that is not a bad thing. We can learn from our mistakes. And many "mistakes" are actually blessings when viewed through the eyes of experience. True mistakes and failures are forgivable. God is always ready to forgive us our sins if we repentantly come to him through Jesus (1 Jn. 1:9), and then he forgets them so they are never brought before us in accusation again (Psa. 103:12).

Life as a 30 something in a 17 again body is not the same as being 17 the first time, as Mike promptly finds out. He brings to his re-senior year, a level of wisdom missing in these teenagers. It is a wisdom that comes from experience. And as the narrative moves forward, much of the humor comes from this.

Mike has the chops to stand up to the school bully and beat him with words, not fists. Meeting his own kids at their age, he cannot parent them. He can only try to befriend them, gain their confidence and offer advice. With his wife, he can only be a buddy to her son, though he tries to win her back to his older self (wherever that might be). These scenes when they are together are awkward, if somewhat comic. And Ned discovers love in a like-minded principal, who steadfastly refuses his peacocking and ebulient shows of interest.

One of themes of 17 Again is abstinence, which is strange but welcome in a Hollywood teen movie. In the health class discussion of abstinence, the official school policy, the teacher cynically refutes this policy. But Mike has seen the error of his ways, and stands up against the tide: "Now that is very sensible! I'm glad someone here has their head screwed on straight! I think all of us should make a pact to abstain from sex!" Of couse he is rudely mocked by all. Yet, when he goes on to speak emotionally from the heart of the consequences of sex, he wins over the girls, though not the boys.

Mike's speech is preachy and unbelievable. Yet it delivers a strong message on a biblical issue. Sex is a beautiful thing in its intended place (Heb. 13:4). That place is the marriage relationship between a man and wife (Gen. 2:24). It brings pleasure; it also brings babies. Outside of marriage, it is a sin that harms all involved (Lev. 20:10). Pain, guilt and even grief often result. Yet, this delayed gratification message is not popular today, as Mike was not popular in voicing it. Our present culture has dismissed or redefined marriage from its original meaning and undermines abstinence as an option, just as the teacher did in this film. Thank goodness for the wisdom of an older Mike.

Along these same lines, a little later the now studly senior is at a bowling alley party and is accosted by three hot babes, each of which is more than ready to throw herself at him. Again he walks his talk and says to them, "Listen, girls. If you don't respect yourself, how do you expect others to respect you?" Words of wisdom, but not quite the teen talk they wanted. This is played for laughs in the film, but it is a truth that we need to hear long after we finish laughing.

Self-respect comes from living true to our beliefs. These girls wanted sex with Mike as a form of acceptance and an affirmation of self-worth. But self-worth and dignity are inherent in the human make-up. It comes from our being created by a wondrous God in his image (Gen. 1:26). We need not throw away our purity for a man's (or a woman's) approval. Rather, we need to respect and accept ourselves more than that. We need to look for love and partnership with someone who will respect us for who we are, and will appreciate that purity that we can bring to the relationship. This may sound prudish and puritanical, but it is actually positive and leads to prosperous and healthy relationships.

So, would you go back to high school and be 17 again? Ned sums it up for me: "No. I'm rich and no one has shoved my head in a toilet today!"

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

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