The expertly performed and well mounted drama Being 17 would have a lot more impact if it didn’t play so coy with the audience’s expectations of the obvious. Veteran French director and co-writer André Téchiné certainly has a handle on the identities of his characters and their situations in this coming of age tale, but he dances around them and ends up repeating himself a bit too often and a bit too plainly. There’s a great human drama here, and one that will resonate with many young people struggling with their own sense of identity, but it comes in the trappings of a rather average screenplay.
Being 17 follows two teenage boys from the French countryside across an entire school year. Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a bit of a bookish nerd; the son of the town doctor (Sandrine Kiberlain) and a deployed soldier (Alexis Loret). At school he often finds himself at odds with Tom (Corentin Fila), a hardscrabble country boy whose mother (Mama Prassinos) has fallen ill. Not wanting Tom to have to make an already long commute to school even harder while his mother recovers in hospital, Damien’s mother extends an invite to let her son’s bully stay with them for an extended period of time. Neither boy seems pleased by this turn of events, but it’s clear from the start that their antagonism of one another is masking an unseen kinship.
It’s never in doubt that Téchiné wants to take things in the most literal direction possible with Being 17. We know that Damien and Tom like each other more than their falsely cultivated alpha male personas will allow them to admit. The best parts of Being 17 occur through Téchiné and co-writer Céline Sciamma (who worked on Girlhood and My Life as a Courgette) look at how bullying masks attraction and similarities on a broader level. The subtle ways that Tom and Damien pseudo-stalk each other at school and the glances shot in each other’s direction say more than the duo’s actual actions.
It’s through performance and technique that Being 17 comes to life. Klein’s portrayal of Damien as a young man whose sensitive and violent sides are constantly at war provides the spine of the film, while the struggles displayed by Fila in finding his place in the world provide rawer emotion. In tandem, their chemistry as both enemies and allies elevates the movie beyond the simplistic and predictable script. These two young and still developing talents turn in star making performances here, and Téchiné’s direction matches their efforts even when his screenplay feels half developed.
Instead of taking a voyeuristic or natural approach to the material, Téchiné takes something inherently more cinematic, often following the boys with lengthy, fluid tracking shots and only employing close-ups when necessary. Quite often these days such material would be stylistically pitched as either gritty verite or a static stage play. Instead, Téchiné wisely matches the energy and drive of his teenage stars, perhaps most stunningly when the pair has a brief, but brutal fistfight in the snow, captured in a gorgeous looking wide shot.
It’s just a shame that the pacing, story structure, and dialogue to Being 17 held more surprises. Everything comes telegraphed so far in advance and never as a surprise. Much of Being 17 feels like the viewer is waiting for the inevitable to happen, and once the foreshadowed reveals finally arrive, it’s a bit of a letdown that genre expectations aren’t being subverted in any revelatory ways. The style and performances never fully match the material, but in this case that discrepancy makes for a much more interesting film.
Being 17 opens exclusively at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, November 18.
Check out the trailer for Being 17: