Tina Hassannia, Special to National Post | November 18, 2016 4:07 PM ET
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Being 17 is about two high-school boys who are simultaneously
attracted and repulsed by each other. It begins with that most
horrifying of adolescent experiences: being chosen last for a team
Thomas (Corentin Fila) and Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) look at each
other with loathing (for both themselves and each other) on the empty
bleachers after the rest of their male classmates have been chosen for
their respective teams. It’s a moment that speaks to the hidden layers
of homophobia in a high-school setting, where boys must demonstrate
their masculinity by outperforming others, and where athletics are akin
to achieving that “proper” level of masculinity. Which is exactly why
Thomas later pointedly trips Damien in front of the entire class; to
detract attention from himself as being a weakling or effeminate.
The film is a thoughtfully plotted drama about Thomas and Damien’s
incipient feelings for each other and how their discomfort with being
gay and in the closet manifests in aggressively masculine behaviour.
Thomas picks fights with Damien, while the high-strung Damien tries to
earnestly learn self-defense moves from his ex-military neighbour, who
calls Damien’s attitude while fighting “girly.”
What ends up bringing the boys together is total happenstance. When
Damien’s doctor mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain) provides a home
visit to Thomas’s family farm wherein she determines his mother is
pregnant, Marianne is moved by the teenager’s intelligence and good
humour. Realizing the farm work and commute is preventing his success in
school, Marianne invites Thomas to live with them, and thus begins a
strange relationship in which the two boys are at odds with each other.
They only start to express their truest feelings when a tragedy brings
them back together.
André Téchiné’s film, co-written by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood), is a
nuanced exploration of what it means to reconcile your gender identity
with your sexual orientation. For young homosexual men, the idea of
being “manly” can often feel at odds with being gay. Being 17 explores
this theme by contrasting two characters who share a sexual orientation,
but who are otherwise quite different.
Damien is white, while Thomas is biracial; Damien comes from a
privileged and upper-middle-class upbringing, whereas Thomas grew up on a
farm; Damien’s well-educated parents gave him the kind of privileged
home wherein he could express himself more openly, while Thomas’s
upbringing is mired by minor family woes that are never talked about.
Despite all this, Thomas is more naturally confident, while Damien is
awkwardly pushy and needy. The expressions of their sexuality and
comfort with being gay, greatly differs and can been seen as
manifestations of both their unique personalities and personal
The film’s emphasis on the beautiful rural countryside of the rugged
French mountains and the seasonal weather helps underscore the ebb and
flow and constant change in the two boys’ disposition and beautifully
symbolizes their character growth, and it’s a sheer delight to watch
these two boys — on their way to becoming men — challenge and provoke
each other, before they finally embrace.