At Seventeen...

Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans)
(France, 116 min.)
Dir. André Techiné, Writ. André Techiné, Céline Sciamma
Starring: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila
Corentin Fila and Kacey Mottet Klein in Being 17, a film by André Techiné
Courtesy Pacific Northwest Pictures

Legendary French director André Techiné (La belle saison) returns to the screen with Being 17. This invigorating love story yields a strong May-December romance behind the camera as the 73-year-old director pairs up with up-and-coming filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, My Life as a Courgette). Together, the pair writes a film of fresh vision with a master’s hand. The leisurely-paced and richly characterised drama is a sharp, provocative, and revitalising coming-of-age and coming-out-of-the-closet romance.

Being 17 journeys into the land of young love as high-schooler/aspiring farmhand Thomas (Corentin Fila) finds himself in the company of his classmate Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) after Damien’s mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain) visits the family farm. Marianne makes the long trip from town because Thomas’s adoptive mother Christine (Mama Prassinos) is pregnant with an unexpected (but certainly welcome) surprise. Thomas, upon Marianne’s suggestion, comes to live with them while his mother rests in the hospital.

Thomas’s stay in the family home proves an unexpected (but certainly welcome) surprise for Damien. As Being 17 shows in the early stage of Christine’s gestation—Techiné and Sciamma structure the film in three acts to coincide with the trimesters of the pregnancy—that Thomas and Damien have a tense relationship at school. They fight for no reason as one agitates the other and receives a kick or a punch in return. Boys will be boys, for sure, but this kind of relationship doesn’t make for the best match in a space as intimate as a home. On the other hand, maybe it does.

In this case, love is a lot like Christine’s unplanned pregnancy. Sometimes things just happen when the timing’s right. Some shock, some queasiness, some uncertainty, but depending on the course one takes, it can grow into something meaningful.

By the second trimester, this pent-up aggression reveals itself as repressed longing working itself out. As Damien realises the feelings for Thomas that grow inside his belly, life at home becomes awkward. Techiné uses ample lingering shots, hesitant glances, cautious pauses, and brief strokes of bodily contact to convey the restless but palpable attraction between the two boys. Thomas and Damien, at 17, are approaching love for the first time. Since neither boy is out nor demonstratively aware of his sexual orientation when the film begins, Being 17 gives the characters significant territory to explore and complex emotions to wrestle with like two boys going for brawls in the yard.

Being 17 wrestles with the challenge of figuring oneself out at this age of self-discovery and awareness. By letting the boys go blow for blow in numerous physical encounters, the film uses intense physical contact between Thomas and Damien to create intimacy as they negotiate the meaning behind the mix of pain and pleasure they each feel as they scuff and tumble in the fields.

As the film progresses through Christine’s trimesters, the boys grow and add layers and complexity through the performances. Klein and Fila give strong turns as the boys each undergo their own growth from boyhood to adulthood. Techiné lets each actor draw upon his character’s respective strengths with his physicality—Klein’s smallness and vulnerability to match Damien’s sensitivity and Fila’s brooding physicality and strength to define Thomas’s discomfort and self-loathing. They’re very believable and effective with the youthfulness and vitality of their chemistry.

Kiberlain makes Marianne a dynamic character, too, as the mother undergoes her own unexpected turn with love. Hers is a romance cruelly aborted. This interest in the experiences and emotions of a maturing woman is just as significant as the frankly depicted interracial queer romance of Thomas and Damien.  Pain and grief in one corner, but compassion and tenderness with the boys in the other, lets Marianne confront her own sense of self in the world much like the boys growing under her wing. She might be beyond the edge of 17, but life keeps giving birth to new experiences.

Being 17 opens in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on November 18.