Post-New Wave director and former Cahiers du cinéma film critic André Téchiné has been a well-established voice in the French cinema for almost five decades at this point, so the most pleasant surprise about Being 17 is not the profoundly touching gay love story at its heart but the fact that a director in his seventies has captured the confusion and misdirected rage of adolescent masculinity with an almost unparalleled level of understanding. It should be noted that this credit must be shared with co-writer Céline Sciama (Tomboy), a protege of Téchiné who has produced similarly affective work in her own right. While the plot may be highly predictable, Téchiné and Sciama present a nuanced view of budding male sexuality with a subtlety and pathos rendered all the more noteworthy by the director’s chronological separation from his subjects and the screenwriter’s lack of a Y chromosome. Téchiné and Sciama have set the bar high, and young male filmmakers dealing with similar subjects — gay, straight or otherwise — will have to hang their heads in shame if they can’t get it right in the future.
The story follows two high-school-aged boys whose constant fighting belies an underlying sexual tension; if that setup seems a bit conventional, Téchiné and Sciama’s capacity to build said tension is anything but. Thomas (Corentin Fila), the biracial adopted son of rural farmers and Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), the more affluent offspring of a small-town doctor and her perpetually deployed Army helicopter pilot husband, could scarcely have less in common; and yet, through Téchiné’s painstaking characterization, their coupling seems both natural and inevitable. The slow-burn infatuation the two boys develop for one another is portrayed as a central conflict, but handled with a gracefulness that refuses to depict their burgeoning sexuality as an aberration or even a novelty.
The matter-of-fact presentation of the film’s love story is crucial to its intent, and in the hands of a lesser cast the entire enterprise may have fallen apart. Fortunately the performances are strong across the board, with Sandrine Kiberlain delivering a standout turn as Damien’s well-meaning but somewhat clueless helicopter mother. However, it’s Fila and Klein that are tasked with carrying the weight of the film, and for young actors of somewhat limited experience (especially in the case of Fila) they more than rise to the challenge.
The maturity of Téchiné’s directorial voice is on full display here, crafting character through context with breathtaking vistas of the French Pyrenees establishing Thomas as force of nature while Damien’s lingering stare does more to convey his unspoken attraction than a thousand lines of dialogue. While a less experienced filmmaker would likely have fixated on the boys’ conflicted romance as the film’s dramatic focal point, Téchiné’s attention is dedicated to developing character rather than caricature, using his protagonists’ relationship as a lens through which to examine universal emotions that transcend sexuality.
Ultimately, Being 17 is not a film about adolescence or homosexuality, but about longing, isolation and the terror inherent to the prospect of emotional interdependency. Téchiné and Sciama’s film deftly balances its more salacious story beats with careful characterization that elevates its subject matter, using its central conflict to make a powerfully moving statement on the fundamental loneliness and isolation of the human condition. Téchiné has delivered a film that stands as a defining work of not only queer cinema, but of humanist cinema as a whole. Not Rated.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse