fight or to fall in love: That is the choice two antagonistic high
school classmates face in “Being 17,” a touching drama about raging
hormones, bullying and sexual awakening — and the strongest film in many years by the post-New Wave French director André Téchiné.
when punching each other furiously, Thomas (Corentin Fila) and Damien
(Kacey Mottet Klein), combatants whose senseless schoolyard fights have
an undertone of repressed desire, wear the stricken expressions of
innocents caught up in a war they don’t understand and would rather not
film follows their conflict over three academic trimesters. Their
scuffles begin as pranks by Thomas, who trips and shoves Damien in
surprise attacks. The matches become increasingly brutal and
ritualistic, inflicting injuries.
two could hardly be more dissimilar. Thomas is the adopted biracial son
of sheep and cattle farmers in the Pyrenees. Damien is a spoiled,
high-strung son of Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a doctor from the
valley below, and her husband, Nathan (Alexis Loret), a helicopter pilot
in an unidentified war zone. The family keeps in touch via Skype. In
one of her strongest performances, Ms. Kiberlain’s Marianne is a
dedicated physician who goes out of her way to help others and has no
qualms about exerting authority.
Thomas struggles with his schoolwork, Damien is an academic star, math
whiz and arrogant nerd who in his spare time takes classes in
self-defense. Thomas’s visceral hostility is exacerbated by Damien’s air
of superiority and by the rhinestone earring he wears. But in the high
school pecking order, both are outsiders.
makes a house call to Thomas’s farm when his mother, Christine, has a
pulmonary infection, and discovers that Christine, who has a history of
miscarriages, is pregnant. Unaware of Thomas and Damien’s mutual
hostility, she invites Thomas to stay in her house so he can avoid the
daily three-hour round-trip commute, much of it on foot, and she coaches
Christine through her pregnancy.
Thomas has moved in, Damien, the more articulate of the two, nervously
confesses, “I don’t know if I’m into guys or just you” and initiates a
first embrace, which Thomas seems to welcome before recoiling.
of magical realism are threaded through the movie. One night in the
mountains, Thomas strips naked and dives into an icy lake while Damien
watches, entranced. In another scene, Marianne, whose husband is away on
a combat mission, has an erotic fantasy in which Thomas makes love to
her. Such moments give “Being 17” a semi-mythological dimension. At one
point, late in the movie, the boys exchange literary quotations about
of Thomas pitching hay and brushing cattle underline the suggestion
that he is a symbolic force of nature exerting a gravitational pull. As
he tramps through the snow on his way to school, you have a piercing
sense of a young man in harmony with nature. In certain shots, he is
almost heartbreakingly beautiful, yet unaware of his charisma.
“Being 17” is Mr. Téchiné’s
first screenwriting collaboration with Céline Sciamma, whose films
“Water Lilies,” “Tomboy” and “Girlhood” address gender and sexuality
with a contemporary immediacy. The movie is not really about deciding
whether you’re gay or straight — those terms are never spoken. It’s
about the chemistry of two people at a moment in time.
“Being 17” is not rated. It is in French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes.
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