Director André Téchiné’s Being 17 (not to be mistaken with The Edge of Seventeen, also coming out this week) depicts the lives of two adolescent boys, Thomas and Damien. The film follows, presumably, their 17th year of life, but is divided into trimesters in accordance to Thomas’ adoptive mother’s new pregnancy. Great performances make up for far too many subplots, a rushed ending, and not enough psychological depth.
Both Thomas and Damien are outcasts at school – as marked when they are the last to be picked for teams in gym class (that’s just bad teaching letting kids segregate kids, but I digress). Despite their mutual alienation, they take a liking to beating the crap out of each other. Each affront is reciprocated with a greater act of aggression and eventually Damien’s mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain) takes notice and attempts to stage an intervention of sorts.
At TIFF, for our coverage at Dork Shelf, I favoured this kind of movies. Coming of age, dysfunctional families, unconventional bonds. Marianne is the town’s only doctor, and the town itself is in the mountains, just like Pyromaniac. Its a weird fusion of some of the themes I noted during the Festival. The rural mountainside community, especially at the beginning, highlights the isolation that both boys feel and the necessity of connection (especially since Marianne must attend to the pregnant woman). The scenic vistas also harbour a sense of danger and dread, especially due to the fact that winter seems perpetual and that it would be very easy to fall off a cliff.
The boys fight with such gusto and passion that I was reminded of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and for good reason. I believe more could have been done to explore the basis of hostility between these two young adults, and whether or not this hostility would lead to an undercurrent of domination, abuse and exploitation (paging Fassbinder now). The doctor tries to investigate the basis of the boys’ conflict, but like the viewers, ends up with more questions than answers. The film centres on an interesting dilemma, but I am not certain that it mines it deep enough – the boys fight, then make up, then fight again, then attempt to justify their actions with stock phrases and cliche gestures. A boy will initiate a fight, yet, be surprised when the other also becomes aggressive, or be disappointed when the other is not affectionate.
That being said, I still rooted for the protagonists to just make up already. I’m just not sure they have the maturity or nuance to make their peace last, so I am uncertain about whether the ending has a payoff.
I would like to commend this film for showcasing the positive relationships between the boys and their respective mothers. Rarely have I seen a film in which genuine affection was expressed and demonstrated within families (the families are dysfunctional, but for different reasons, and that should also be commended as well).
Just like in this review, I am not certain the trimester narrative device was necessary – Thomas’ mother’s pregnancy is just one of many subplots that affect the boys, and making this one the basis of how the film is structured is a bit of a stretch and an attempt to, I feel, compensate for a lack of narrative focus on what is really important: the boys’ aggressive bond with each other.
Being 17 is not easy, but I look forward to Being 18 all the same to see where these guys end up.
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