AF French Film Festival Review: Being 17 (France, 2016) is a thoughtful coming-of-age story

If Being 17 is any indication, the 2017 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is off to a great start. Coming-of-age films are a genre that I deeply appreciate. With no need of a strong reliance on plot, seeing the progression of a protagonist through young adulthood can be compelling on a cinematic level.

So when I heard of Being 17 screening at the festival and all of its critical buzz, I was intrigued. But what sealed the deal for me was the co-writer of the film, Celine Sciamma. Having seen her last directorial project, my hopes skyrocketed, since I absolutely loved Girlhood, with its mature approach to young adulthood, showing how it feels to briefly belong somewhere and its sheer realism. So does Being 17 live up to the hype?

The film starts off with Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), a taciturn yet intelligent student who lives with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlein), a doctor. His father, Nathan (Alexis Moret) is a military pilot who often gets called into mission reports.

During school, Damien gets picked on by Tomas (Corentin Fila), a classmate who trips him over for no reason. Thus begins a series of violent confrontations within the school faculty.

Tomas, who is a bi-racial son of sheep and cattle farmers, has to spend 90 minutes travelling to school. During one of her house calls, Marianne gets called to Tomas’ house to lend aid to Tomas’ mother, Christine, who has been through a series of miscarriages. Hearing that Tomas is struggling with his grades at school, she takes it upon herself to invite Tomas to her home to study. With the pressing of his parents, he reluctantly agrees.

Having no say in the matter, Damien has to suck it up to reside with Tomas, but little do the two realise that this would be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

When I was watching the film, I found the catalyst of the relationship very hard to swallow. A mother inviting a bully of her son to live together is a hard thing to shake off and it is understandable that it would turn some people off. But if you get over that, Being 17 is really a compelling film that like Girlhood, is honest, non-judgmental and emotionally satisfying. But it isn’t as good as the latter, due to some flaws that are quite unfortunate.

Director Andre Techine, whose work I’ve never seen but I’m willing to rectify, takes a subtle approach to the storytelling, with very little of the histrionics that usually accompany the genre, and it pays off beautifully. More reliant on physical expressions than dialogue, we see the angst and confusion of the characters; like in a scene where the two boys are fighting each other in the snow.

The film is also split into three trimesters (a name given to the terms in French schools and also a reference to Tomas’ mother’s pregnancy status) and the seasons reflect the progression of the characters brilliantly, while the settings in Pyrenees, France are beautifully captured by DOP Julien Hirsch.

The performances certainly hold up their end of the bargain, with the two leads showing great nuance and maturity to their performances. Klein and Fila share great chemistry, whether in hostility or intimacy, they both give life to their characters while making them truly genuine.

Sandrine Kiberlain is fantastic as Marianne, as she shows warmth, charisma and (without spoilers) is very convincing in the later stages of the film. Despite her character’s questionable actions, Kiberlain makes it believable that the character would do such a thing.

But there are flaws that prevent this film from being truly great. Alongside the morally questionable foundation of the story, there are scenes in the film that are seemingly present for the sake of foreshadowing, but lead to nothing. In one case, there’s a scene where Marianne has a dream about a certain character that is morally bizarre. How it adds to the story is questionable and ultinstely should’ve been left in the cutting room floor.

Overall, Being 17 is a thoughtful coming-of-age story with great performances, honest storytelling, beautiful cinematography and subtle direction that is sure to delight. If you can overlook its questionable morals, the emotional journey that the characters go through is sure to satisfy.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Being 17 is currently screening around Australia as part of the Alliance Francaise Film Festival. For tickets and more details on screening times and locations, head HERE.