One of the major problems with many (most) American movies is that characters are always supposed to know what they want. That’s what they teach you in film school — in fact, that’s pretty much all they teach you in film school. Establish a hero with a clear objective. He has to solve the murder, he has to get the girl, he has to win the big game (sadly, not in the same film). Define a “want” in the first act, complicate it in the second, and make good on it in the third. Of the infinite fantasies that can be found in the dark of the cinema, perhaps the greatest and most perverse of them all is that everyone walks around this world with such a clear sense of purpose.
Would that it were so simple. Who the hell ever really knows what it is that they want, and what small fraction of those people are clairvoyant enough to know why? This discrepancy between truth and movies — and the desire to circumvent it — has always been the secret appeal of coming-of-age narratives. These are stories about people who are struggling to sort out the basics of who they are, let alone what they’re hoping to achieve with that information. And yet, so much of the genre is compromised by more concrete goals, eagerly cutting its kids into the same pre-stenciled shapes stencils that life has already traced for them.
When you see something like Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” or André Téchiné’s “Wild Reeds” — French films, made 20 years apart, that both fearlessly confront the volatility of growing up — it becomes very difficult to go back to stories that have been told with the bumpers on. And when you see something like “Being 17,” which Sciamma and Téchiné just co-wrote together (with the latter directing), it becomes virtually impossible. A slow, shaggy, hyper-naturalistic coming-of-age drama that constantly returns to the sheer violence of becoming a man, this is a movie that isn’t the least bit afraid to dwell on how hard it can be to become who you are. Or, in this case, how much harder it can be when you’re a boy who’s in love with his bully.
Not a gay story so much as a queer one (Sciamma’s extraordinary “Tomboy” illustrated her disinterest in strict definitions of sexuality), “Being 17” is shared between two teen boys growing up in the emotionally vivid mountains of the French Pyrenees. Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) is white, reckless and vaguely punchable. Thomas (newcomer Corentin Fila) is bi-racial, reserved and reflexively violent. They don’t seem to like each other very much — Thomas trips Damien in the middle of class for no apparent reason — but their mutual animus is rooted in private self-doubts.
Damien struggles with his confidence, and worries about the absent father who regularly Skypes in from some Doctors Without Borders danger zone. Thomas, who travels for 90 minutes through the tundra to get to school every day, frets that his adopted parents will demote him to a second-class son once his unexpectedly pregnant mother gives birth to her biological child. Thomas’ nerves only get worse when she’s hospitalized due to complications, and Damien’s mom — played with raw compassion by French cinema stalwart Sandrine Kiberlain — obliviously insists that the kid move in with her family for the time being.
It’s both extraordinary and exasperating to watch the two young men grapple with their newfound proximity. Téchiné, understated as always, lets his characters find themselves at their own pace — there’s hardly a hint of attraction between them for the first half of the film, the director allowing the landscape to express all types of tangled lust. The snow dunes absorb their feelings and mute their aggression, and the mountain fog is so thick that it can obscure the full length of their bodies. It isn’t until Thomas strips naked and dives in a moonlit lake that we register Damien’s gaze for the first time.
The film’s hyper-naturalism is its raison d’etre, and “Being 17” is at its best when it leans into that approach. It’s deeply fascinating to watch Thomas and Damien fumble their way towards figuring out whatever it is that’s buzzing between them. They’re always fighting — sometimes with themselves, but more often with each other. Every tender moment or subliminal flirtation is memorialized with a brawl or a wrestling match, and echoes of “Beau Travail” reverberate through the scenes in which the boys submit their bodies to violence in order to disguise their desires. Fila and Klein are both excellent, alternately hesitant and aggressive as they mine real conviction from confusion (Fila’s casting in particular is immaculate, as he’s sufficiently unformed to be a lust object for both Damien and Damien’s mom).
If the ultimate payoff isn’t as satisfying as it should be, perhaps that’s because the film stumbles when trying to bridge the gap between longing and fulfillment. Sciamma’s scripts tend to be more ruthlessly efficient with their time and make use of all the string they gather, no matter how innocuous a beat might seem. But this one meanders a bit, stretching over an entire school year. Individual gestures are still endowed with a rare potency, but taking such a long view of the story makes it easy to lose track of the struggle between need and desire, easy to disconnect from how these characters are weighing the risk of following their hearts.
Sciamma and Téchiné are too smart to let this go unnoticed, but their attempts to course-correct err on the side of overcompensation. They result in scenes like the one where the boys read Plato, discuss the difference between need and desire, and then call out how on-the-nose their conversation is. But when writers are so skilled at crafting lucid, agonizingly honest moments like the ones that stand out from “Being 17,” the patchwork around them doesn’t seem to matter as much. When Damien turns to Thomas and confesses: “I don’t know if I’m into guys, or just you,” his words reverberate throughout the rest of the movie like a gunshot in a canyon. They reverberate because you genuinely believe that Damien doesn’t know — they reverberate because they remind you how normal not knowing can be.
“Being 17” opens in theaters on October 7.