Two 17-year-old boys go to the same high school – where they all but terrorize each other. What’s a mother to do? She unknowingly invites the aggressor to live with them temporarily while his mother recovers from an illness at a nearby hospital.
This is the crux of the story that plays out in Being 17 – a beautiful French film that was screened at Outfest 2016 in Los Angeles.
The film stars Sandrine Kiberlain as Marianne, a local doctor and mother of the aggressee Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) – who is far from blameless in his dealings with the primary aggressor Thomas (Corentin Fila).
Thomas has a lot on his plate: a full day at school where he struggles to keep his grades up plus the requisite homework that may or may not actually be getting done, tending to a sick mother (Mama Prassinos) and helping his father (Jean Fornerod) maintain their struggling farm – which the film mentions as being one of the few remaining as technology has rendered many others obsolete. And being 17 years-old doesn’t help matters any – particularly when you have feelings you don’t know how to process and emotions you don’t know how to express. So Thomas withdraws from people to take long hikes through the woods, broods when he can’t escape those people and has largely inexplicable (at least to himself) bursts of anger toward Damien.
Though things are easier for Damien, he and his mother live under the specter of having a father and husband (Alexis Loret) away from home for long periods of time serving in the French Army with the possibility that at any time word will come down that he won’t ever be coming back at all. Like Thomas, Damien has his own escapes – cooking and self-defense training from his neighbor Paulo (Jean Corso).
Tensions between Thomas and Damien slowly thaw once they’re forced under the same roof with a moratorium placed on their fighting. And though they do have one last all-out brawl in a remote part of the mountains, they eventually do start to get along. To the film’s credit you can’t necessarily pinpoint a specific moment when this evolution takes place – which allows for several possible moments to collectively make the evolution more gradual and organic than one specific moment would.
The film directed by André Téchiné also does a masterful job of capturing the confusion of adolescence and the general inability to put feelings into words at that age. This is seen mostly in Thomas but also in Damien for the first half of the film as it related to Thomas. So it explains why, when Marianne discovers bruises on both their bodies long after their mountain brawl, they (to my frustration) don’t tell her that they’ve actually started to get along – even when she has to send Thomas back home because of them.
The film doesn’t expressly say why Thomas and Damien hated each other so much during the first half of it, but the fact that it doesn’t makes it quite obvious. By the second half of the film, Damien has come to enough of an understanding of his feelings toward Thomas to a) attempt a kiss and b) tell his mother about both. And when Thomas finally comes to that same understanding, the payoff is worth the prior ambiguity.
Though a tragedy looms over that latter third, it actually serves as the foundation upon which Thomas and Damien establish their bond as Thomas steps up to take care of Damien in the wake of said tragedy (the film’s most touching moment was when Damien collapsed into Thomas’s arms as soon as he saw him after his father’s funeral) so that Damien can step up to take care of his devastated mother.
Being 17 is not a love story in the sense of getting two people together by the end. It’s a love story in the sense of two young people coming to the realization that they feel a special way about the other person more than they do about anyone else — and how to process that.
It’s a unique approach that makes Being 17 worth checking out.