Adolescence has been a fertile terrain for cinematic exploration since well before the term became a thing, a few years after the end of the second world war. In Being 17, two French cineastes who have both produced worthy entries into the cinematic representation of teendom meet: director André Téchiné, an elder statesman of French cinema with a five-decade-strong career, and screenwriter Céliné Sciama of 2014’s Girlhood fame and the relative newcomer having shot her first feature not a decade ago. Together they tell the story of Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila), two seventeen-year-old boys who attend the same school and whose initial animosity might mask more complicated feelings. Damien’s mother is a physician and is treating Thomas’, which is excuse enough for the two boys to end-up living together, thus laying the groundwork for their conflicting relationship to evolve and allow fistfights to give way to sexual tension and possibly more than that.
Organized around French school terms — trimesters roughly matching the change of seasons — the movie’s structure forgoes any unnecessary affectation to chronicle the sexual awakening of its two main characters: the initial quarrels take place in winter, with Thomas and Damien usually drifting alone into snow-covered scenarios, their budding friendship and would-be romance finally resolving in the springtime. The characters are constructed in an equally simplistic manner. Damien, the poetry-reading child of a middle class family is the one less reluctant to call his feelings for what they are. Thomas, the adopted son of a mountain-farming family who struggles in school, won’t easily accept that there might be more than mere physical attraction between him and his classmate. Of course, this is not just a brusquer version of the old will-they-won’t-they trope, but neither is it a uniquely nuanced take on the homoerotic impulses that often underlay male bonding. To be fair, Being 17 is a perfectly correct teenage romance melodrama, no more no less, and that really is all there is to it.
Much has been made of the fact that a 70-something director known for his rigorous and stark style is the one behind Being 17’s helm. Fair enough. The film is shot with nervy energy, favoring tight shots and a shaky camera — all new traits in Téchiné’s storied repertoire. In all honesty, the visual style could be the one adopted by any young director for their debut feature. Indeed, it is so contemporary and functional a language that were this not an old filmmaker’s work, one could easily describe it as a mostly anonymous style. Nevertheless, having started his career as a film critic, it is possible that Téchiné has simply understood such is the style best fitted to the material at hand. Sure enough, Being 17 is visually and stylistically closer to co-writer Céliné Sciama’s films than Téchiné’s, boasting her loose-limbed candor.
On the negative side, that means Being 17 inherits some of her work’s lesser traits. The schematic plotting, to put it bluntly, is perhaps the worst of all. A couple of scenes shout “heavy-handed symbolism,” some plot-advancing decisions will test your suspension of disbelief, the foreshadowing is pretty obvious, and the callbacks absolutely transparent. Not only do Thomas and Damien literally “fight” their feelings, but share a post-coital cigarette after a violent punch-out. A death in one family overlaps with a birth in the other, a bonfire signals the consummation of the boys’ romance… I mean, hanging a David Bowie poster in Damien’s bedroom might get a pass, but having him utter “I don’t know if I’m into guys or just you” is pushing it.
All in all, Being 17 tells a clichéd story but does it in good taste and with enough warmth and subtlety to stave off any sensationalistic interpretation. As a collaboration between two auteurs it largely disappoints, playing to neither of Téchiné’s or Ciama’s strengths to instead sink in the most mundane attributes of their respective styles. Then again, proper melodramas are rare enough these days that it’s easy to be happy that Being 17 simply qualifies as one.