by Ken Bakely
Life can only be lived forwards, Kierkegaard said, but is best understood backwards. This seems to be the hypothesis for André Téchiné’s Being 17, in which the dynamic between two teenage boys – Damien (Kasey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila) – is shown in a linear evolution, but is more impactful when pondering in retrospect. They live on the outskirts of a town below the Pyrénées mountains, in southwestern France. Damien lives with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a physician. His father (Alexis Lorset) is in the military, and thus is away from home for long stretches of time. With few exceptions, the family’s only method of universal communication is a rare Skype call.
Thomas lives even further away, on a farm with his mother (Mama Prassinos) and father (Jean Fornerod). When his mom falls ill, she discovers that she is pregnant, and is admitted to the hospital so she can recuperate and prepare to give birth. While she is away, Thomas’ father must tend to the farm full time. Marianne invites the boy to come live with her and Damien, so he can be closer to both his school and the hospital. There’s one problem with this arrangement – Damien and Thomas can’t stop fighting. An odd impulse brings instantaneous contact from the moment they’re alone together. They’ve already gotten in trouble at school for this. Yet there’s seemingly no explanation. This new living situation will force the two to evaluate what this aggression is hiding, and it turns out to be something far more intimate and complex than either understands.
Téchiné, known for making these examinations of youth, is 74 years old now. But it’s clear that he has not forgotten how to convey the maelstrom that affects his adolescent protagonists. He wrote the script with Céline Sciamma, who made Girlhood, and together the two combine a wide-ranging narrative with a naturalistic pace. The 115 minute film is divided into three segments, titled “trimesters” – one in winter, one in spring, one in summer. The film uses its dramatic landscape to its advantage. As the environment gives way from blanketing snow to budding flowers to hazy heat, the symbolism of how the characters’ emotions are being shifted is a bit obvious, but there’s no question about its effective implementation.
Indeed, there’s something literal-minded about how Being 17 carries itself. The film is a sprawling set of inter-character examinations. It tests and examines them – physically and emotionally. It conveys how even the deepest moments of despair or worry can lead to transformative, necessary moments in one’s life. The process through which Damien and Thomas’ relationship matures is a long series of painful moments mixed with, or synonymous with, the most direct and poignant of events. What’s most important about the implications here is that slow, observational languidness is Téchiné’s aim. He doesn’t feel a need to spruce things up, or provide extra drama to developments which convey enough on their own.
This isn’t to say that Being 17 is absent of energy. The story’s meaning evolves in its own ways. It comes in those times when Damien and Thomas truly communicate, as underlying whirlwinds of masculine, sexual, and humanistic emotion are accounted for in the strong performances of Klein and Fila, alongside Téchiné’s assured direction. It comes in silent moments after a significant event, with one caught between wanting to say everything and not knowing where to begin. It comes in shots of unassailable mountains, rivers, fields, and forests, a constant rotational element which reflects the permanency of nature when all else feels in flux. That’s the approach which holds this entire thing together. Even when the runtime feels a bit stretched, there is an absorbing, arresting portrait of budding maturity which is impossible to overlook.