André Téchiné caused a small sensation with his 1994 film Wild Reeds, a nostalgic but unromanticized look at coming of age in southwest France in 1962, and while the film has four teenage leads, the closest thing to a protagonist is a boy coming to terms with his homosexuality, a boy based on Téchiné himself. Now, at age 72, Téchiné returns to familiar ground with Being 17, another tale of homosexual teen angst, class differences, and adult crises amidst devastating natural beauty.
Being 17 lacks the breadth and narrative complexity and political directness of Wild Reeds, but director/co-screenwriter Téchiné retains his patient observational skills, an intimate approach. And he also has a suitable creative partner here in co-screenwriter Céline Sciamma, who wrote and directed the trilogy of female adolescence Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood. While many of the incidents in the gay storyline from Wild Reeds line up to similar incidents in Being 17, the new film proposes a gay attraction that's mutual and promising, if the characters can ever admit to themselves and each other that it's real. The conflict of Being 17 gets literalized, in a sense, in physical fights, but the realer conflicts are internal.
In a small town nestled in the French Pyrenees, closeted gay teen Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) does well in school and lives comfortably with his mother (Sandrine Kiberlain), a kindly doctor, and his father (Alexis Loret), a good-natured Army helicopter pilot who spends most of his time deployed to Afghanistan. Damien's academically struggling classmate Thomas (Corentin Fila) lives on a mountain farm with his adoptive parents, who get exciting and scary news: after many miscarriages, Thomas' middle-aged mother (Mama Prassinos) is pregnant.
At school, Damien and Thomas have in common an outsider status demonstrated when both get picked last for basketball. Each is also sitting on unspoken disquiet. Insecure over his sensitive nature, Damien toughens up by getting lessons in hand-to-hand combat from a family friend (Jean Corso), and Thomas stews over the possibility that a "real child" will dislocate him from his parents' love. Of course, both also share an identity issue that resides even deeper: homosexual desire that remains unsatisfied if not unacknowledged. Unconsciously, the teens fear the mirror image each holds up to the other, and one day Thomas trips Damien in an instinctive grab for a crumb of social elevation and self-esteem.
The boys begin picking fights with each other on a regular basis, a situation exacerbated when Damien's mother Marianne begins to treat Thomas' mother Christine, the former offering to take in the latter's child to help him to focus on his studies. Now housemates, Damien and Thomas glower at each other, bicker, and fight, but also find themselves in situations where they're obligated to make nice. Eventually, true feelings find voice, sparking thrilling and terrifying encounters, new kinds of confusion, and hopes risen tantalizingly close to the surface.
Fending off Damien's flirtations at one point, Thomas says, "You're really heavy-handed." Being 17 doesn't exactly have that problem, although its essential conflicted gay teen romance feels pretty familiar and it plot turns obvious (each boy gets a third act opportunity to provide relationship-cementing emotional support to the other). The film works because its emotional beats strike honest notes, well played by the actors in the clutch moments (Fila does particularly nice subtle work as the more conflicted of the young lovers). Téchiné and Sciamma prove that there is, in truth, beauty, as in youth and mountain greenery, as in nature's need and human nature's desire.
Strand Releasing's digital-to-digital HD transfer of Being 17 shines on Blu-ray. This is a film with mostly location photography, and the natural light tends to yield beautiful imagery (the sunshiny moments are, of course, especially crisp). The image gets an entirely faithful rendering, with true, vital color and impressive sharpness of detail and richness of texture, including natural skin tones. Though shot on digital, the film retains a filmic character. [Note bene: a slight skip in the action at 50:01 at first struck me as an encoding error, but it appears rather to be an element of style for Téchiné, who has a habit of accepting awkward edits to stitch together the best of two takes. See 1:36:04 for another, less jarring example.]
On the face of it, Being 17 doesn't make great sonic demands on its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, but listen a little closer and you'll notice the subtle immersive work the soundtrack does to place you onto mountain passes or into a buzzing schoolyard. Dialogue always stays well-prioritized (and, of course, optionally subtitled for non-French speakers), and music carries an appropriate fullness.
In lieu of any other bonus material, Strand includes the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:32, HD).
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