Film Review: 17 Girls

Exceedingly well-done film, based on a real news story, which addresses a growing international youth dilemma.

In 2008, a group of 18 high-school girls in Gloucester, Mass., devised a “pregnancy pact” to all have babies together. The media picked up on this to the extent that it made international news; spotting the story in a French newspaper, sister filmmakers Muriel and Delphine Coulin were inspired to transport the tale to their native beachside town of Lorient and tell it from a Gallic perspective.

17 Girls is a striking feature debut for the sisters, a trenchant study of the kind of boredom in a beach burg and adolescent anomie which could drive girls to do such a thing. It admirably avoids sensationalism or sentiment of any kind, the unfussy screenplay being a model of terse observation. The direction is always smart and fully involved, awake to the sensual possibilities of the girls’ malleably nubile flesh—at times the photography evokes the work of Deborah Turbeville—and the seaside, sand and windswept setting. With that beach locale and issues of illegitimacy and parenthood, the movie almost plays out like a modern, non-warm and fuzzy update of Marcel Pagnol’s famous Fanny trilogy.

The Coulins have really burrowed beneath the skin of these girls, as we watch them alone in their bedrooms, half-asleep in class, wandering aimlessly around town, going to the surfside nighttime revels with boys that are their only escape, apart from movies they can’t afford. Camille (Louise Grinberg), the first to get pregnant, states it for all of them when she observes that having a baby is a way of being free and getting out of her humdrum life, her body being the only weapon she has against a dull, bourgeois high-school existence.

The girls misguidedly see all of this as a way of gaining control over their lives, while the parents, their hands tied by French law which prevents the interference of any kind in their children’s pregnancies, can only watch impotently. The Coulins also blessedly avoid any easy demonizing of the adults here, presenting them as struggling souls themselves. The always-welcome Noémie Lvovsky is a particularly warm, intelligent presence as a teacher trying to understand these girls (and who nevertheless smokes in the presence of the expectant Camille, while counseling her). Also good is their handling of the boy in the matter (Arthur Verret), whose reaction to Camille’s condition is an authentic mix of half-gallant concern and diffidence.

Use of music is aligned with the Coulins’ good taste, with a song from the Broadway musical Hair, of all things, being something of a spirited anthem of independence for these little mothers at the party at which they get knocked up.

The acting feels uniformly real, with mostly non-professionals playing the girls. Grinberg has the uncanny, grave beauty and self-possession of generations of comely French ingénues and is fully believable as the kind of undemonstratively popular teen who could have such influence over her friends. But, for me, the real cast standout is little Yara Pilartz, as the smallest but most determined of the girls. Barely out of puberty, she nevertheless has the riveting presence of an old soul in an achingly young body, a miniature Simone Signoret in the making.