Restless teenagers Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila) are classmates in rural France, although neither one likes the other. Damien is a poet who wants to muscle up, and takes self-defence classes as an extra-curricular. Thomas is a bi-racial son of adoptive parents who treks an hour through the mountainous countryside to get to school every day. When the 17-year-old loners end up living under the same roof after Thomas’s mother has to go to the hospital, both boys realize they may be hiding something: a desire for the other.
The new drama from French auteur André Téchiné is most impactful in the small moments between the two male leads. The filmmaker trusts that Klein and Fila can dig into these complicated teens. We slowly begin to register a lust, initially shown in measured ways that soon become harder for the characters to repress. It is not at all a surprise when we realize how deep these emotions run, a testament to the ability of the young actors. Klein, a standout in TIFF 2015 selection Keeper, shows off a wider range, slowly unable to tear away from his crush or keep his feelings to himself.
Being 17’s pivotal scenes of sexual longing are spare and stunning. They include a shared cigarette in a cliff tunnel as rain drenches the countryside, and a few noticeable glances in the back of a classroom. Thus, it is not surprising that filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Girlhood), one of modern cinema’s most perceptive observers of teen behaviour, is a co-writer. On the other hand, a few pivotal moments of dialogue between Damien and Thomas ring with less truth. (One discussion in particular, about the meaning of desire, feels especially unnatural.) Meanwhile, some of the story turns in the final third feel just as inorganic, given the leisurely feel of what has come before.
Yet, despite these flaws, Téchiné has a masterful grip on both young stars and the film’s boundless rural setting. Taking place against the mountainous French Pyrenees, a space of frequently shifting temperatures and seasons, Being 17 beautifully evokes the drastic changes befitting its protagonists. Cinematographer Julien Hirsch captures the grandeur of the space, letting the fog and snow work as metaphors for the confusion of the characters. The screenwriters also give Damien and Thomas room to explore themselves in this wild environment, without the need to utter words.
Is Being 17 opening weekend worthy?
Yes. A few plotting miscues aside, Being 17 is sensitive and striking. In the growing genre of foreign, queer coming-of-age film, this is a notable entry, and should be recommended for fans of both Téchiné and Sciamma.
Being 17 opens Friday, November 18, 2016 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for more information.