In movies, if not in real life, all unhappy teenagers are the same, all happy teenagers are . . . well, there are no happy teenagers.
Despite the generic title, “Being 17,” by veteran French director André Téchiné (perhaps best known for his similarly themed 1994 film “Wild Reeds”), distinguishes for the most part the unhappiness of his two teenage protagonists from the run-of-the-mill cinema standard. Téchiné does this by multiplying the issues they must confront.
It’s not enough that Thomas (Corentin Fila) is a biracial kid in an all-white community. He is also adopted, has a Heathcliff-like personality, and must commute for three hours every day from his family’s marginal dairy farm in the mountains to school smelling, probably, of manure and hay. He has a sick mother and is confused about his sexual identity.
Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), on the other hand, must deal with the stress of an absent father serving in a war zone. He has a semi-Oedipal relationship with his country doctor mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain). He is a bit scrawny and is picked last to play basketball during gym period (after Thomas). He’s ostracized because he quotes Rimbaud and is also confused about his sexual identity.
Damien and Thomas love/hate one another at first sight, and resolve their differences and similarities by beating each other up. This works well, though it gets repetitious, until Marianne invites Thomas to stay with her and Damien while Thomas’s mother is laid up in the hospital. Thus forced into cohabitation, the two boys continue to beat each other up, but secretly.
All of this unfolds under the magnificent Pyrenees, which cinematographer Julien Hirsch displays in stunning long shots. The winter scenes are especially beautiful, with snow drifting across the black stone and the monochrome punctuated by brilliant daubs of color: a green coat, a red cap, a yellow school bus creeping along the side of a mountain.
The performances are meticulous and passionate, the narrative low-key and sensitive enough to conceal, until the traumatic incidents keep piling up, the film’s contrivance. Elements of myth, biblical resonances, and Freudian psychopathology contend with clichés and predictability. Overwrought, confused, and melodramatic, it reflects well what it’s like being 17.
Directed by André Téchiné. Written by Téchiné and Céline Sciamma. Starring Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila and Alexis Loret. At: Kendall Square. Running time: 117 minutes. Unrated (brief nudity, sexual confusion, animal cruelty). In French with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.