MQFF review: Being 17

Stalwart André Téchiné and rising star Céline Sciamma deliver confused teenage love with emotional heft. Beautiful. 

The meeting of venerable Wild Reeds writer/director André Téchiné and one of France’s brightest and smartest young talents in Girlhood and Tomboy writer/director Céline Sciamma, here on co-scripting duties, is a perfect snowstorm over the Pyrenees mountains in the joyous Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans).

On its surface, the travails of two handsome high school boys, Kacey Mottet Klein’s adorably jug-eared Damien and the chiselled Corentin Fila’s brooding, mixed-race Thomas, denying their strange magnetism towards each other while channelling pent-up tension into fisticuffs, would seem like a fairly standard coming out and coming-of-age yarn.

In great hands, however, every moment of this finely honed, delicately delivered drama is staggeringly fresh-feeling, infused in the confused yearning and explosive nature of teenage years, all malleable identity and sexually-charged longing tempered by fear and self-loathing.

Their contretemps is enriched by the expanded role given to the wonderfully expressive Sandrine Kiberlain as Damien’s local doctor mother Marianne. It’s her charitable aid of adopted Thomas’ depressed farm-owning mother Christine (Mama Prassinos), struggling with the shadow of several failed pregnancies, that inadvertently increases the fractious intimacy of the boys’ magnetic orbits when she offers to put up Thomas while his mum has a spell in hospital.

As this temporary stay is extended, worlds apart in many ways, an undeniable bond forms between the young men that Marianne recognises, even if not quite for what it is, hoping to help them bury their testosterone-fuelled aggression and forge an enduring friendship.

Slightly gawkier, Damien is a smart but unfocused boy who spouts poetry, cooks and is drawn to sparring lessons with the military mate (Jean Corso) of his on-duty army helicopter pilot dad (Alexis Loret), the latter mostly appearing via Skype. Thomas is bookish, with dreams of developing his farmhand knowledge into a veterinary career, but struggles with his grades and lurks in school’s quietest corners in self-imposed exile.

After quite possibly the most bizarre aborted pick-up attempt ever, with Damien press ganging a reluctant Thomas into giving him a lift to the farm of a man almost twice his age in the hopes of losing his virginity while his friend and the object of his desire waits outside, Damien finally musters the courage to convey into words what countless longing stares have already communicated, “I don’t know if I’m into guys or just you.”

It is in the nature of this teasingly ambiguous film that Thomas does not  respond directly, leaving the audience just as desperate for some sort of clarity as Damien.

No character is wasted, even Thomas’ sparingly seen dad Jacques (Jean Fornerod). Klein and Fila are magnificent, but Sciamma and Téchiné excel with the creation of witty and nurturing Marianne, convincingly sold by an impressive Kiberlain who is far too often squandered in small roles of little import. The strange triangle she constructs between her son and the troubled Thomas intrigues.

The swirling maelstrom of teenage desire is echoed in the fiercely elemental beauty of the Pyrenees, swathed in snow and fog, lashed with rain and then bursting into spring-borne life, captured with awe by cinematographer Julien Hirsch. The spectre of nature’s violence threatens tragedy too, with bears, avalanches, cliff faces and bees all ominous.

If a final act beat is a little too clearly signposted for such a quietly trusting film, it’s a forgivable stretch in a near-perfect capturing of the essence of teenage heartache and first love, with Sciamma’s influence helping septuagenarian Téchiné deliver his most youthful film to date.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★1/2

Catch Being 17 at MQFF.

A version of this review first ran during the Sydney Film Festival.