In film, there is a natural hostility towards youth. Part of this comes from the obvious fact that most cinematic stories are reflected through the eyes of an adult storyteller. Or Michael Bay. But this also comes from the fact that cinema has it’s own limitations as to what it can capture, and developing youngsters, filled with contradictory beliefs and attitudes, sometimes irrationally exuberant or overwhelmingly downcast, do not make reliable figureheads for onscreen drama. These inherent limitations ghettoize most films about youth, placing a ceiling on recognizable human drama that can be evoked from still-fertile, erratic minds. That makes it even more difficult when a topic like the controversial one that drives “17 Girls” enters the conversation, as it stems from a true story that defies any sort of adult sensibility.
Adapted from an actual incident that occurred in the American Northeast, Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s French-language “17 Girls” begins with the indistinguishable paste-white bare thighs and sinewy limbs of a group of teen girls waiting for their examinations. It’s the table-setting for what’s to come, as the approach seems to be to create a plausible community where conformity breeds surrogate families amongst middle class students. This sense of communal belonging is challenged when young Camille (Louise Grinberg) reveals to her friends that she’s pregnant.
This goes over poorly with Camille’s single mother, who protests about her right to retire and live the rest of her life free of worry. Her explosion is based in a lack of faith that Camille interprets as too harsh yet also accurate. Masking her insecurities to her friends, she instead comes to them melodramatically, rebranding herself as their tragedy, the shared cross they must bear together. A second girl emerges, an interloper distinguished by her red hair and more demure physical appearance, and claims she is pregnant as well. Her assimilation into this Popular Girl Clique comes with the realization that, together, they are a unit capable of caring for each other.
Their joint decision sparks a decision one might categorize as rash: together they opt to get pregnant, forming a baby collective of sorts that can provide for each other, see doctors together and share medication, and eventually childcare. Without familiarity of the real life case, it’s not at all a surprise that this group, eventually living together and glibly dubbed a “hippie commune” by one member, becomes something of a gang instead. Their bursting bellies become something of a status symbol at school, intimidating the boys and alienating the other girls as they live by an increasingly hectic set of rules they proceed to break.
The filmmakers consciously depict flummoxed parents as outraged without a clue, a portrayal that places us firmly in the girls’ corners. A PTA meeting that devolves into shouting results in one faculty member sincerely advocating for condom machines in the school, and the Coulins never once suggest if this is a clever or comedic suggestion. True, it is a situation with no bad guys, but moments like the visibly pregnant girls obliviously toying with a soccer ball on fire (a gorgeous visual non-sequitier) acknowledge that the approach to the material is definitely a kid-gloves situation, free of judgment-passing both of the characters (necessary) and the inherent human ambiguity of this community-wide conflict (borderline irresponsible).
“17 Girls” is mostly fueled by grrl-power, from it’s nineties-era femme-centric alt-rock, to it’s marginalization of boys as sperm-deposit devices, unfair but a natural corrective to years of women onscreen as purely sexual objects. But the story is ripe for a greater understanding of class and sexual values, ones that the film does not pursue in favor of depictions of the life of youth untethered, unmanaged, and true. The accomplishments of “17 Girls” lean towards truth simply out of the film’s own clearheadedness, but the avoidance of the troubling/fascinating aspects of the story make the film less art, and more of a boilerplate “Based On True Events” account. It’s Movie Truth, an only-sometimes valuable substitute for Real Truth. [C+]