17 Girls

Note: Last September, I screened and reviewed this French film prior to its upcoming Bay Area threatrical release. That release never happened, and my review remained unpublished. I just discovered that the film is  available streaming on Netflix, so I’m posting my review.

B+ Adolescent drama

  • Written and directed by Delphine & Muriel Coulin

17 Girls gets off to a bad start. After a few very quiet minutes, a teenage girl plugged in her earbuds and turned on her iPod. The soundtrack burst into loud rock, and I said to myself “Here come the opening credits.”

But I’m glad to say that this is the only cliché in a film that could easily have been buried in them. Movies about teenage angst are more common that superhero sequels, but few besides this French drama captures the raw energy, misdirected rebellion, and camaraderie tinged with peer pressure that so defines adolescence .

The story would seem absurd if it wasn’t based on an actual incident. Camille, the leader of a pack of high school girls, confides in her friends that she’s pregnant. It17girls was a “condom accident,” but she’s leaning towards keeping the baby. Soon the lean becomes a definite stance, and she’s looking forward to having someone who will always love her “unconditionally.” It doesn’t occur to her that her child may one day hate her as much as she hates her own mom. Before long, other girls are getting pregnant on purpose.

These girls live in a fantasy world. They imagine that they’ll all live together in a big house where their parents can’t bother them. They’ll stay in school, help each other, and live happily ever after. The real difficulties ahead of them don’t fit into their plans.

The adults know better, of course. “Even your goldfish went belly up,” Camille’s mother points out. But she’s a grown up and, worse, a mother, which makes her wrong by default and probably an idiot.

Not that 17 Girls treats the adults as sages. No one in authority knows how to deal with what can best be described as a pregnancy epidemic. At a meeting of parents and school staff, everyone concentrates on blaming others. Some argue for more homework and some for morality, while the nurse reminds everyone that she fought for a condom dispenser.

Boys here are treated as little more than devices for delivering sperm

But the picture focuses almost entirely on the girls. They fight. They lie. They pressure each other into doing stupid things. One who hasn’t succeeded in getting pregnant fakes it to remain popular. Unlike American teenage movies, nothing here is played for laughs.

The film remains serious because it’s almost entirely told from the girls’ point of view, and teenagers seldom see what’s funny in their own behavior. These pregnancies are clearly a rebellious act, and the girls enjoy shocking their parents and other authority figures. They believe that becoming parents at an early age with make them adult, respectable, and free.

Boy, are they wrong.

The simple, utilitarian camerawork and editing help keep the focus on the characters as believable people. The filmmakers also eschew a conventional score; the only music on the soundtrack is the mostly hard rock that’s the background of the girls’ own lives–heard only when they realistically would be hearing it.

We see a lot of girls in the film, but we only get to know a couple of them. There are only so many characters you can develop in a feature film, but I wish the filmmakers had found ways to quickly flesh out a few of the others.

As I mentioned above, 17 Girls was based on a true story. However, the original story happened in Massachusetts, not France. Although the change in locale was an understandable decision (this is, after all, a French film), I suspect that it may have reduced some of the story’s tension. I imagine that the French are probably less puritanical about this sort of thing.

My original response to 17 Girls was negative. But before long, the film’s honesty and realism won me over.