17 Again, whether you classify this film as a Zac Efron classic or barely even recognize it, for twelve year old Natalia it was a high school comedy masterpiece. So, naturally, I rewatched the entire movie the moment I got the notification that it was on Netflix. Do not get me wrong —I still love the movie and find it hilarious! However, I could not help but notice some things about the film that my then tween brain did not. But before we get to that, it’s important to understand the plot of the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet so beware of spoilers!
To put it simply, 17 Again follows thirty-something year old Mike O’Donnell as he goes through life wishing to relive his high school glory days while simultaneously going through a divorce. He is then transformed back into his 17 year old self and he gets a chance to do it all over again. Along the way, he develops meaningful relationships with his wife, Scarlet O’Donnell, and two kids, Maggie O’Donnell and Alex O’Donnell. He soon realizes how much he is missing out now by living in the past rather than focusing on the present.
The plot itself is relatively harmless, but what caught my attention as I was rewatching it is how the movie portrays women as one-dimensional sexual beings rather than meaningful characters. This becomes extremely apparent when examining one of the main characters, Maggie O’Donnell. Throughout the film, Mike helps his children manage their hectic high school lives while under the disguise of being their high school classmate. He gets to know them on a more intimate level than he ever did as a father. The concept of this is beautiful and one of the strong suits of this film. Sadly, the execution of this is where the movie falls flat.
What bothers me is the way Maggie’s story with Mike is handled. Her arc completely revolves around her boyfriend Stan and how strongly her father is against her exploring her sexuality with him. While this definitely allows for some funny overprotective dad gags to come into play, it also reduces Maggie’s relationship with her father to being very one-dimensional and controlling. It’s just disappointing to see that most of the scenes that center around Mike and Maggie revolve around the topic of love and sex and how important it is to wait for the right guy. Other than Maggie getting accepted into Georgetown University, we do not get any details of Maggie’s passions, goals, or aspirations.
Now, examining Alex’s story and his father’s influence, there is a noticeably different dynamic between them. The father and son duo are very multifaceted in terms of self-growth and realization. Mike helps his son stand up for himself against his bully (which also happens to be Stan), practice basketball in order to get on the team, and helps him raise his self-esteem in order to talk to the girl he likes. All of these are positive ways Mike has actively helped Alex grow and feel fulfilled with his life.
The truth of the matter is, women and sex have always been interwoven in society and the media we consume. This is especially prevalent in stories with a high school setting, where expectations of women either losing or keeping their innocence are ever-so present. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the movie using Maggie as a catalyst to explore themes such as sex and abstience. The issue is that it’s all they explore with Maggie’s character. They don’t go as in-depth with Maggie’s story like they do with her brother. In fact, one could even argue that Maggie’s presence is only given importance when Stan is involved, because that’s when Mike pays the most attention to her.
So, after all this character and story exploration, is 17 Again a bad movie? I don’t think so. Although the way women (specifically his daughter) are portrayed is disappointing, it’s important to note that even our favorite films can fall victim to faulty representation. There is a difference between loving something while also recognizing its faults, and loving something to the point of blindly defending it. If we as consumers and critics are able to make that distinction, we will be able to have more productive conversations regarding media and the roles of women.