The opening sequence of Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s teen drama 17 Girls is so tender and true that the rest of the film really can’t hope to match it. 17 Girls begins with a group of French high-schoolers standing around in their underwear, waiting for an obligatory medical exam. As they scratch, slouch, and horse around, the Coulins show them not as sex objects, but as awkward young women, not yet comfortable with their bodies. The scene says so much about what it means to be a teenager: outwardly mature, yet inwardly still a kid.
17 Girls is based on the recent “What is this world coming to?” news about an upsurge in teen pregnancies in a small Massachusetts town, which some people claimed was due to a secret pact among the mothers-to-be. Here, the action has been transported to a seaside French village, where popular student Louise Grinberg gets pregnant and shocks her friends by announcing that she’s planning to keep the baby and stay in school. “I think it’ll be cool,” she says. Then a former outsider to Grinberg’s clique says she’s knocked up, too, and she gets accepted into the fold, which encourages more girls from inside and out of Grinberg’s circle to take the plunge. Their parents and teachers freak out, but every attempt the grown-ups make to scare their kids straight—including showing graphic delivery-room films at school assemblies—just makes the girls seem more like bad-asses to their peers.
17 Girls has a nice look, and strong performances, but ultimately, the Coulins fail to go deeply enough into the heads of their protagonists. Grinberg and company seem like typical movie teens, saying things like, “We’ll never be like our parents!” while they daydream about their babies. Even that fantastic opening scene, in retrospect, is symptomatic of 17 Girls’ failures. It’s lyrical and natural, which is fine in and of itself, but which doesn’t fit with the broader melodrama that the Coulins seem to be making. The perspective is all wrong, for one. The insights into girlhood in the opening are coming from the viewpoint of adults, while in a story this strange-but-true, it’d be more helpful to see these kids as they see themselves.