There’s a moment down by the river late in André Téchiné’s Being 17 ( Quand on a 17 ans) that edges very close to that scene in his seminal coming of age drama, Wild Reeds. Another sun-drenched location, another pair of boys, one privileged, one outsider, dealing with a simmering sexual charge. A river flows, invitingly, in the background of the shot as the two boys prepare to have another crack at one another. Surely they are wearing loose-fitting white y-fronts…
But it is not to be. Despite the tantalising homage, and despite traversing similar territory, Téchiné takes his film in a direction more in keeping with its robust grounding. Unlike Wild Reeds, the young leads here, Damien, a gangly doctor’s son played by Kacey Mottet Klein (who previously wowed in Sister), and adopted farmer, Thomas, played by Corentin Fila, aren’t just getting on with their sun-kissed lives and being swept up by an intoxicating but unfathomable attraction, they are fighting against it and each other. Constantly.
The boys’ violent reaction to their unexplored desires is beautifully observed and wholly believable. In this, the hand of Téchiné’s co-writer, Girlhood writer/director Céline Sciamma, is clearly evident. She does for Being 17’s young men what she did for her most recent female protagonists, she gives them an exacting and resoundingly honest voice.
Of course, for teenage boys, this often means they don’t speak much at all. Their broody antagonism is played out at school, in toilets, on the way home, and in Damien’s home after his mother, Marianne (played by the extraordinary Sandrine Kiberlain), offers to take Thomas in for the winter.
Téchiné and Sciamma cleverly conspire to force the boys’ hands. Locked in close proximity, they are constantly staring each other down. Their eyes drip with bravado and desire, each working to his own strengths, one’s brains, the other’s brawn (though Damien’s fight lessons with a family friend and Thomas’ academic exertion level the playing field somewhat). The ever-threatened fight scene, which eventually takes on a comically primal dimension against the backdrop of the stormy Pyrenees, is endearingly adolescent in its release.
Ironically, in the lead-up to this, Kiberlain takes on the mantle of Élodie Bouchez, playing the boys off each other with little idea of the actual consequences. She’s being a good mother and attempting to diffuse a situation for her son, to give a leg-up to a boy she sees potential in and to provide a teaching moment for the pair of them.
Sciamma and Téchiné bring class into the proceedings cleverly, with Thomas’ feeling of displacement in his adopted family, his not-so-subtle take-downs of Damien’s demanding nature and Marianne’s tinge of white saviour mentality. Much of this comes into play understatedly, as Thomas latches onto, and at the same time resents, Damien’s tight-knitted family, and as Damien is continually jolted into jealousy by his mother’s apparent favouritism.
But there is so much more going on here. In the storm of love and mourning and despair and loneliness and rejection and camaraderie, the complexities of motivation and gut-propelled emotions are often humanly inexplicable. It is a testament to all three lead performances that everything that happens is still entirely understandable and entirely moving.
Being 17 is in almost every way a companion piece to Girlhood. It speaks to the struggles of youth and young queer love amidst masculinity’s solitary chest-thumping. It is a film that works both in and around these structures, just as most queers learn to at an early age. And it overflows with visual and emotional richness. And above all, it is as vital as any of Téchiné’s best work.
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