The director André Téchiné, now in his 70s, makes wondrous films about young people. In Wild Reeds, a band of friends sort through unrequited love, sexual awakening, and clashing attitudes inherited from their parents toward the Algerian revolution. In Being 17, Téchiné tells a similarly nuanced story about young people trying to gather the strands of their identities.
His two teenage protagonists, Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila), live in the French mountains, one among the peaks and one in the town below. Damien, the city mouse, lives with his mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a doctor; his father is a military pilot serving overseas, possibly in Afghanistan. When the three of them Skype together, their mutual affection is clear. Though temporarily separated, they are a happy family, and Damien’s nascent gay identity is not an issue.
The family dynamic of Thomas, the country mouse, is more complex. He and his parents farm livestock and produce. Does his father, Jacques, seem a little less attuned to his son than Damien’s dad because of differences in parenting norms between urban and rural families? Or because Thomas is adopted? Hard to tell. What is certain is that Thomas fears that the imminent birth of a child to his mother, Christine, will underscore his adopted status.
The boys’ first encounter is in the classroom in town, when Thomas trips Damien on his way to his seat after reciting a Symboliste poem. He later claims that he did it because he finds Damien pretentious, but there are other reasons, as well. The two of them are the last to be picked for sports teams, Damien because he is slight and Thomas because he is an unknown quantity, a relative stranger who hikes and buses down the mountain each day to attend school and immediately returns to his farming chores when the school day is done. Thomas, who is both virile and unsophisticated, no doubt resents being associated with the less athletic Damien.
While the film is closer to Damien and Marianne, who richly enjoy each other’s company, eating and chatting together with genuine affinity, it does not stint Thomas’ life on the little farm surrounded by forest. His fascination with nature—he stalks bear and swims naked in a winter lake, alone, in secret, at night—is his equivalent of Damien’s Symboliste poem. That Thomas is black adds to his uniqueness in this alpine idyll, but is never problematized, to Téchiné’s credit.
The boys are forced together when Marianne becomes Christine’s doctor and places her in a nursing home in order to preserve the pregnancy. She insists that Thomas come to live with Damien and her in town until the baby is born. In essence, Thomas is adopted again, and this time it is the biological child, Damien, who is threatened, even as he begins to fall in love with his rival.
Enemies, brothers, lovers, friends consoling each other for losses and absences, in bed or boxing in a field, Damien and Thomas grapple each other like creatures being born.