Even as a child, Michelle Trachtenberg had cut her teeth in comedy. She was a regular day player in the classic era of Nickelodeon, she had leaning roles in The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish, Inspector Gadget and, of course, Harriet the Spy. But in 2000, her role as Dawn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced her to a whole new audience, a horror and sci-fi/cult audience she had never really interacted with before—though she had openly been a huge fan of the show before actually becoming a part of it. That role didn’t really offer much in the way of free time for other projects and she played the part for three years until the end of Buffy in 2003. From there, she moved onto projects like the independent drama Mysterious Skin and didn’t return to comedy until EuroTrip in 2004.
That movie, more than anything, had been a definitive chance to shed her childhood image. She had just spent three years as Buffy’s little sister, and if people didn’t know her from Buffy, then they only knew her from young roles like Harriet and Pete & Pete. EuroTrip was a way for her to jump back into comedy in a very adult way, taking charge of her sexuality, though she was only eighteen at the time. EuroTrip was a major studio comedy and while it had mixed reviews, it definitely found an audience and proved that Trachtenberg was an extremely capable and genuinely funny comedic actress.
Nonetheless, her roles post-EuroTrip proved to be a completely random—though exciting—mixed bag of projects. From leading a Disney movie with Ice Princess to getting slaughtered in a sorority in Black X-Mas, the Michelle Trachtenberg filmography of the mid-2000s is eclectic, to say the least.
She did not return to do another studio teen comedy until 2009, five years after EuroTrip though it truly looks as if no time has passed at all, with Burr Steers’ 17 Again. The film is about a man who is completely unhappy with the way his life turned out, who then jumps through an incredibly loosely defined time vortex and winds up in his seventeen year old body. However, he does not travel back in time, that’s what really makes the movie stand out. Mike O’Donnell is still in the present, his problems are all essentially still the same, he’s just navigating them in the body of his much younger self. This sets him on a path to hopefully reconnect with his estranged wife and truly get to know and understand his teenage children for the first time.
While the plot mechanics are entirely different, there are nonetheless stark similarities to Back to the Future. Like Marty McFly, Mike’s whole family situation is something of a disappointment to him. He wishes he could change things, in the past or present, it doesn’t matter. He just wishes things were different. The crux of the movie, though, is his attempt to fix his marriage and reunite with his wife, Scarlet, which is where things deviate from Back to the Future, considering that Marty’s relationship was the only thing he was actually confident in and the one rock in his uneven life. Even his parents’ strained relationship is fairly downplayed, mostly for economical reasons, as we get everything we need to know about them early on, setting up the stakes as the movie focuses on the formation of their relationship.
17 Again is almost the opposite, in both the central relationship as well as the overall stakes, because Mike has already caused damage to his relationship with both his wife and—to a lesser extent—his kids, whereas Marty was not really responsible for any of the things he was unhappy with in his life. Mike’s George McFly, if anything, is his son, Alex, which fits this theme of inverting Back to the Future pretty nicely. Masquerading as a new kid at school, Mike gets to know his son as a peer the way he would never have the chance to as a dad, and focuses particularly on helping Alex out with a girl he likes.
Michelle Trachtenberg, however, presents the biggest parallel to Back to the Future. Her entire character seems to revolve around reminding us of that movie’s most uncomfortable joke as this film takes it even weirder and further. As Mike’s daughter, Maggie, she at first dates alpha jock Stan—for all intents and purposes, the movie’s Biff—much to Mike’s horror. When she sees his attempts to interrupt her relationship at every turn, as a high school student she naturally misreads the signals and assumes that this young Zac Efron who she has no way of knowing the truth about is acting out because he is into her instead. And the moment she comes to terms with this, she is ready to give herself to him completely.
It’s a total sendup of the Marty uncomfortably catching his mom’s eye in Back to the Future, taking that well known but wholly unnerving plot point and pushing it to the point of absurdity, which actually makes it a ton of fun to watch. Trachtenberg proves to be great casting for this, as she can play sexy and funny in equal doses and seamlessly transition from one into the other, which she does in the entirely gross seduction scene. Having just determined that he must like her, she is completely willing to jump young Mike’s bones, totally unaware of course that she’s attempting to lure her father into bed, something she’s probably better off never ever learning about. This is also the most direct inversion of Back to the Future in the movie, as the dynamic from that film has reversed from parent seducing child to the just-as-creepy child seducing parent. It’s weird, but it makes no illusions about its weirdness and is there just to highlight exactly how weird it is, as if it’s a conscious reminder to audiences saying “It was creepy then and it’s creepy now.”
That’s not even the only time 17 Again falls back on that joke, as Mike tries to fix his marriage from inside his teenage body, leading to an extremely uncomfortable and accidental kiss and Mike badly tries to explain his true identity. The age differences and near-incest make for disturbing jokes in a fairly tame movie, but that’s kind of the point. These moments are as weird and over-the-top as they are to drive the point home about the entire nature of the film’s plot. So many people, especially if they hit a slump in their thirties or feel their life took a different path than they wanted, dream of returning to high school and having a second chance. People dream of reclaiming their youth.
17 Again shows you, at multiple times in the most blunt and ridiculous ways that you absolutely do not want to do that. You can’t have a relationship with an adult because you’re a teenager, and you can’t have a relationship with a teenager because you’re mentally still the same adult. Your teenage children might be attracted to you and the general benefits of your youthful body do not come close to matching the costs. Plus, you could be Zac Efron and grow up to be Matthew Perry. Even if it’s framed in the traditional teen rom-com with a clear lesson to be learned, it’s nonetheless a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. There’s a Monkey’s Paw element to the whole thing. In fact, 17 Again might as well be a body horror movie masquerading as a teen comedy.
So many of Mike’s attempts to fix things only make things worse, from his kiss with his much older wife to breaking up Maggie and Stan only to drive her eagerly into his own arms. One of the funniest moments showing Mike’s fatherly horror of his daughter’s sexuality is when he sees Stan and Maggie all over each other in a sex education class. When Stan brags about needing more than one condom, Mike (obviously as his teen persona, Mark) stands up to sing the praises of abstinence while simultaneously remind himself of everything he loves about being a father, sharing the memory of seeing his newborn daughter for the very first time.
It proves that in a high school classroom, no one but Zac Efron could ever convince a room full of teenage girls to decide to be abstinent. In fact, given the stance he so clearly states in that scene, it’s kind of amazing that Maggie even decides to come onto him at all. This scene even feels entirely of its time, considering this was right at the dawn of the Promise Ring craze.
Michelle Trachtenberg is not the main focus of 17 Again, but she’s not exactly off on the sidelines either. Mike (as Mark) goes from being a guy who gives her helpful advice that her father never quite felt comfortable giving her, all the way to being the object of her lustful eye. Thankfully, almost all of that weirdness is expelled in a single scene as the two become something closer to genuine friends before Mike’s eventual return back to his own, 37 year-old body.
17 Again is kind of a mixed bag, but a harmless and mostly charming one. It feels almost like a ‘90s rom-com with an ‘80s plot and that’s actually not a bad night at the movies. Zac Efron is clearly having the time of his life playing a much older person than he actually is, and starts to demonstrate the great comedy chops he’d go on to show later in his post-High School Musical career. As far as the Trachtenberg of it all, she is legitimately great it in it. This is the first time she’s gotten to do go-for-broke comedy since EuroTrip and makes her talent for it just as clear as she had done in that, with some of her scenes here boasting the offbeat, frenetic energy of the “pot brownie” scene in EuroTrip, but dialed up even further than that.
At the same time, she’s a girl in a not-so-great relationship with a boyfriend who’s terrible to her and she plays that earnestly, as well as bringing a vulnerability and sweetness to the quieter moments, like when Efron consoles her after she’s completely devastated by her breakup. And the fact that she can balance that with over-the-top attempts to pounce her dad just speak to what a multi-faceted professional she clearly is.