Being a teenager is tough. It is a time of heightened insecurity and anxiety, during which many people discover who they really are. Such is the case for the two boys, Damien and Tomas, at the centre of Being Seventeen. Tomas comes from a farming family and is stagnating in his studies. Damien’s father is a soldier, fighting in an undisclosed country and his mother is a doctor.
When the film begins, the mountains surrounding their idyllic village are buried under crisp, white snow. The world is as cold as the two boys who inhabit it. But when Tomas’ mother becomes pregnant, Damien’s mother, who is her doctor, makes Tomas stay in their home to help with his schooling, further complicating the boys’ relationship.
There is no doubting Damien and Tomas’ hatred for each other at the outset of the film. In class Tomas trips Damien for no reason and pushes Damien down after school. But Damien jumps back up and lets fly several of his own blows, one leaving Tomas with a bloodied nose. Damien is no victim here. But as time goes by, the seasons transform, Tomas’ mother’s once barren womb blossoms, and the two boys’ relationship changes as well.
One of the wonders of the film is the unexpected way this relationship develops, so we won’t go into details about where it takes them.
The film deftly deals with the burgeoning issue of masculinity. For these boys, they deal with it through asserting physical dominance and prowess during their fights. At first, this desire to win comes from their contempt for the other, but as they begin training together a quiet respect develops. They promise to cover for the other if Damien’s mother should find their wounds.
Being Seventeen relies heavily upon the performances of Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), Tomas (Corentin Fila) and Damien’s mother (Sandrine Kiberlain). The latter acting as the moral centre for these two boys as she keeps them from spiralling out of control several times until, near the end of the film, they must do the same for her when she experiences her own tragedy. These performances are at times sensitive and at others outright bold with all three characters pushed to their limits time and time again.
Post-New-Wave director, André Téchiné (I Don’t Kiss, The Girl on the Train) aids these performances by allowing the camera to invade these characters’ private spaces, reminiscent of the style of Lars Von Trier. He also makes the most of the Pyrenees backdrop, transforming it at times into a whimsical dreamscape to mirror the boys’ unfolding relationship. But with a film of this kind, if you aren’t involved with its leads, it will start to drag. And at times, their actions just don’t feel realistic for their age. That is the greatest weakness, which admittedly is not a lot, of an otherwise great film.