‘Being 14’ (‘A 14 ans’): Film Review

Being 14 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Ad Vitam

Being 14 Still - H 2015

Lock up your daughters

Actor-writer Helene Zimmer's feature debut follows a band of French teenage girls

If you thought the kids in Kids were bad, you should see the ones in Being 14 (A 14 ans), an incredibly crude portrait of three teenage girls that was released in France with a warning for “scenes, words and images that could shock the viewer.” Not that this intriguing and somewhat eye-opening debut feature from 23-year-old actress-writer Helene Zimmer is filled with the sort of NC-17 rated material favored by Larry Clark, and the director thankfully keeps her characters clothed throughout. But when these sassy gals open their mouths, there’s enough cussing to fill several volumes of the Urban Dictionary, with conversations almost entirely devoted to the one thing every teen has on their mind.

Yet there's something else at work that carries Being 14 beyond the exploitative nature of Clark’s films, with Zimmer denouncing a world where young women are subjected – or subject themselves – to the macho whims of the boys around them, while rejecting authority figures they seem to have no faith in. Sure, these girls just wanna have fun, and that they most certainly do – whether it’s smoking joints, binge-drinking or fooling around after school. But they’re also fraught with fear, solitude and submissiveness, and can only rely on each other to get ahead. After a small local release, expect to find them getting busy at festivals and among a few art house distributors who aren't afraid of ratings boards.

The film's first line of dialog, recited in the middle of math class by the brunette rebel, Sarah (Athalia Routier), can roughly be translated as: “Nasty ass virgin, I’ll never f**k you!” This is addressed to Sarah's sometime guyfriend, Anthony (Kevin Chateau), the leader of a wolf pack who all have the same scooters and barbershop fades in their hair, while sharing a predilection for outright misogyny, referring to their female classmates only as “bitches” and “whores.”

This doesn't seem to bother Sarah and her best buds Louise (Najaa Bensaid) and Jade (Galatea Bellugi), who bask in the constant attention while also playing hard to get, then bragging to one another about their sexual exploits – whether real or fake – afterwards. Early on, a discussion about a boy who’s “hung like a horse” turns sour when Jade is mocked for having performed fellatio on him, and the “little slut” is quickly ousted from the group.

Let’s not forget that these ladies are all still in junior high school, and despite their foul mouths and bad behavior they can be extremely sensitive, going through the usual adolescent growing pains. Zimmer – who starred in the censored sex movie Q and co-wrote Benoit Jacquot’s Diary of a Chambermaid – is well aware of how teenagers often feign appearances they can’t help betraying, and she justly shows Sarah, Louise and Jade suffering from various forms of humiliation and isolation, while facing parents who just don’t understand them.

There’s nothing new in that, though Being 14 goes farther than most teen movies in its uncompromising use of abusive language and incessant party scenes, including one rather unbearable sequence where Sarah nearly vomits herself to death during a soiree-gone-wild. It's as if Spring Breakers has been made as a documentary in the middle-class Paris suburbs, which makes it too much to handle at times.

But although Zimmer overindulges and doesn't always insert enough plot to keeps things moving, the ongoing clash between Jade and the other girls adds sufficient dramatic tension, while cutaways to each character at home help underscore the messy family lives they're forced to contend with. A structure that covers the entire school year, with title cards for each season, also adds some shape to the story, which like many such teen flicks is ultimately about the shapelessness of adolescence.

It's a film that feels closer to truth than fiction, and in that sense the performances come off as entirely natural, with Zimmer doing an excellent job directing a largely amateur cast. They talk and act just like French kids their age should -- as terrifying as that may sound with so many f-bombs (or p-bombs, if you're talking about "putain") being tossed off like definite articles at the start of each sentence.

Veteran DP Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors) captures the nastiness with handheld intimacy and plenty of color, making the banlieue setting more pleasant than usual and avoiding any sort of social commentary: this is not a story of class but of growing up, revealing what it’s like to come of age in a place filled with casual, everyday violence between the sexes.

The soundtrack is loaded with French and American hip-hop tracks, including the popular Macklemore jam “Thrift Shop” – a song that all the girls seem to know by heart, even if their lives appear to be anything but “fucking awesome.”

Production companies: Les Films du Lendemain
Cast: Athalia Routier, Galatea Bellugi, Najaa Bensaid, Kevin Chateau, Louis Jacq
Director, screenwriter: Helene Zimmer
Producer: Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Pascale Consigny
Costume designer: Bedite Poupon-Joyeux
Editor: Yann Dedet
Casting director: Antoine Carrand
Sales agent: Versatile

No rating, 90 minutes