What already looked on paper like an intriguing collaboration pans out into something quite extraordinary in Being 17, an ultra-naturalistic slice of rocky adolescent life that combines violence and sensuality, wrenching loss and tender discovery.
Inevitable comparisons will be made to director Andre Techine’s most personal film, Wild Reeds, which also explored the destabilizing force of teenage desire in a rural setting ruptured by a distant war. Likewise, a connective tissue can be traced to the limpid gaze of co-writer Celine Sciamma’s coming-of-age stories about sexual identity: Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood. But Being 17 is more expansive in scope and richer in tone than any of those thematically related works; it’s an intimate epic that builds in wholly unexpected ways to a final act of searing poignancy.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Techine and Sciamma work so well together. Both filmmakers generally favor observation-driven storytelling over plot mechanics, depicting complex internalized feelings without forcing their characters to spell them out. The sensitivity of their work is resistant to sentimentality.
Those qualities have been less apparent in some of Techine’s recent films, notably the stodgy 2014 true-crime story, In the Name of My Daughter. But the director’s strengths are at the forefront here, along with a bracing sense of place. He locates something almost mythic in the landscape of his setting in the French Pyrenees, and in the shifting elements of the seasons — arresting scenes take place in heavy snow, sleet, rain and dense mist. Those forces are harnessed by one solitary character and then shared consecutively with two others as the hesitant lines joining the drama’s central triangle are consolidated.
In cinematographer Julien Hirsch’s establishing shots, the camera hurtles along mountain roads winding higher and higher, as a smattering of snow on the low ground turns to a blanket of pure white. Up high is the small sheep and cattle farm that’s home to Thomas (Corentin Fila), the biracial adopted son of Christine (Mama Prassinos) and Jacques (Jean Fornerod). With deft economy, the screenplay fills in the social context via casual references, for instance in a sly detour later on that shows the rise of factory farming down in the town, wiping out most of the traditional mountain farms.
The physicality that injects such vitality into Techine’s storytelling here is evident from the start in footage of Tom’s arduous hourlong trek to catch the school bus every day, trudging briskly through knee-deep snow and leaping across creeks.
Tom’s otherness no doubt partly explains why he’s one of the last to be picked for a basketball team in gym class, though his loner nature is possibly more of a factor. The only student lower on the popularity chain is Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), an awkward, brainy kid who does himself no favors by floridly reciting Rimbaud in class or breezing through a complex math problem that stumps Tom. That prompts Tom to trip him up and bully him after school, but Damien is too tough to accept the victim role.
In vigorous scenes that mirror those of Tom’s daily journeys, Damien, who lives in town, bounds over to visit family friend Paulo (Jean Corso) each afternoon for boxing and self-defense training.
Damien’s father, Nathan (Alexis Loret), is an army pilot stationed in an unspecified combat zone abroad, and his mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), is a doctor. When she treats Christine for a pulmonary infection and discovers the patient’s unplanned late pregnancy, Marianne forces the beginnings of a thorny connection between her son and Tom. While Christine is briefly hospitalized, Marianne insists that Tom stay with them to be closer to school. That situation continues afterwards for various reasons, stoking Damien’s suspicion that Tom might fancy his mother.
The eruption of confused feelings between Damien and Tom is portrayed with pugilistic brutality, in violence that continues long after they start sharing the same roof, but also with a strange transcendent grace that shows Techine at his most emotionally penetrating.
Klein has been acting since before his teens and is a remarkable talent, with a unique screen presence that’s febrile and alien one minute, geeky and awkward the next. Then in unexpected moments you catch a glimpse of his character’s grounded maturity. Even before Damien declares himself, the actor conveys the collision of hostility and desire with an intensity as raw as it is understated, in looks that show how Damien can’t keep his eyes off Tom. The evolution of their relationship from begrudging co-existence to something much deeper avoids predictable paths, instead taking shape through external factors as much as through their own volition.
As a portrait of adolescents wrestling with unfamiliar emotions, this is an uncommonly moving teen film, conveying with great restraint the boys’ loneliness, fear, longing and magnetic attraction in moments so tender and private you almost feel like an intruder. And it depicts sexual discovery with a physical candor that translates into corresponding emotional transparency, even as it stirs up fresh unrest.
What makes the film so satisfying is that while it’s ostensibly Damien’s story, an equal depth of understanding is invested in both Tom and Marianne. They’re very different people, but Tom’s closeness with his mother is no less important than Damien’s with his. Newcomer Fila, a gifted natural, is like a deer in the forest as scared Tom processes his anxiety over where the birth of Christine’s biological child might leave him. At other times, he’s a powerful gazelle, as in the quasi-magical interludes in which he takes a naked plunge into an icy mountain lake. It may sound corny, but the erotic awakening when Damien witnesses one such dip is startling and beautiful.
Kiberlain manages the tricky feat of making the perfect mother unquestionably real and relatable. Her performance can’t be over-praised. Everything about Marianne radiates warmth, strength, humor, intelligence and decency, yet her goodness doesn’t for a moment seem artificial. So when crushing news — clearly foreshadowed and yet stunning in its impact — breaks her and sends her careening into depression, it’s devastating. It also affects the behavior of Damien and Tom in dramatically compelling ways.
Structured into three chapters spanning from winter through summer and broken down according to the trimesters of the school year, Being 17 benefits from unhurried pacing that allows every moment the space it needs to breathe and resonate. Music is used sparingly at just a few points, from Alexis Rault’s contemplative string score to a caressing song by the late Burkinabe musician Victor Deme that suggests Thomas’ roots. The look is unvarnished but eloquent, with a commanding stillness in glimpses of the mountain settings, contrasting with the palpitating handheld shooting of scenes between the two boys.
Premiering in the Berlin competition alongside Mia Hansen-Love’s well-received Things to Come, this enormously soulful drama augurs a strong year for French cinema and a sure profile on international arthouse screens.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Jean Corso
Production company: Fidelite Films, in association with Wild Bunch, France 2 Cinema
Director: Andre Techine
Screenwriter: Andre Techine, Celine Sciamma
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Executive producer: Christine De Jekel
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Costume designer: Christian Gasc
Music: Alexis Rault
Editor: Albertine Lastera
Casting: Nicolas Ronchi
Sales: Elle Driver
Not rated, 114 minutes.