“I don’t know if I’m into guys or just you.”
In a pivotal scene in André Téchiné’s astute and poetic sexual awakening drama Being 17, French high school boys Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila) throw literary quotes at each other while studying together. As their discussion intensifies, their disparate views toward their strange attraction become clear from the material they cite: Damien is willing—eager, even—to go with his unfamiliar feelings, while Thomas fights his. The scene eloquently brings into focus the essence of the tension between them.
Being 17 takes place over the course of a school year. As the story begins, a serious animosity suddenly develops between classmates Damien, a privileged brainy blonde French teen who wears a big flashy (and probably fake) diamond earring, and Thomas, the quiet, rugged brown adopted son of animal farmers. The whole thing starts when Thomas trips Damien as he walks back to his seat in one of their classes. Their interactions grow increasingly hostile and physical: shoving, slapping, and punching. It isn’t clear why, but the two can’t keep their hands—or eyes—off each other. The plot thickens when Damien’s mother (Sandrine Kiberlain), a physician in the remote mountain town where they live, arranges for Thomas to move in with her and Damien while his mother (Mama Prassinos) works through a difficult pregnancy. In a more intimate setting, the boys play a prickly game of cat and mouse as they gingerly let down their guard—only to an extent.
At times, Being 17 pushes suspension of disbelief to its edge. Still, it’s an achingly moving story that is extremely well executed. Even when the interactions between Damien and Thomas get, um, sultry—and they do—this isn’t so much a “gay” film as it is commentary on the power of desire. Téchiné wrote the script with Céline Sciamma, and they explore how hostility and desire play on each other. It’s a complicated dynamic: suspenseful, exciting, and confusing. Alexis Rault’s haunting score lends a pensive, masculine, almost Old Western touch that fits in perfectly. Julien Hirsch’s hazy cinematography gives the film a dreamy, sensual quality that highlights the natural beauty of the settings: the mountains, the lake, the snow, even the fields in the spring. It works really well showing both characters making it through the wilderness, figuratively and literally.
(Gene Siskel Film Center) B