Veteran French director André Téchiné usually employs ensemble casts and intricate narrative structures, but he downplays both in Quand on a 17 ons (Being 17). Shot mostly with handheld camera in a documentary-like style, the movie is uncharacteristically raw and linear. Still, it performs a few surprising twists before reaching an easily anticipated resolution.
The tender drama returns to the subject of adolescent sexual awakening, the theme of one of the filmmaker's best-known features, 1994's Les Rouseaux Savage (Wild Reeds). Where that movie was set at a historical remove — in the early 1960s, with the Beach Boys on the soundtrack — this one is contemporary and immediate. The movie's directness must owe something to co-scripter Celine Sciamma, who's made such smart coming-of-age films as Tomboy and Bande de Filles (Girlhood).
If the story is less populated than most of Téchiné's, that's partly because of its setting: the French Pyrenees, in the same general area where the director grew up. The region is remote and, like most agricultural districts today, losing residents. Indeed, for the movie's first few minutes, just one character is on screen. Thomas (Corentin Fila) makes a solitary 90-minute trek to high school from his adoptive parents' snowed-in alpine farm.
At school, only one other classmate registers: Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), who's a better student and worse athlete than Thomas. When their gym class divides into two basketball teams, Damien gets picked last for one side because he's smaller and awkward. Thomas is the final choice for the other, as he's biracial.
Damien is good at math and enthusiastic about Rimbaud, but not unphysical. He visits a neighbor for self-defense lessons, perhaps because he wants to be worthy of his father, a military helicopter pilot who's currently in an unidentified war zone. Or maybe he wants to be better prepared to protect himself from Thomas.
The two boys fight frequently, so it seems a bad idea when Damien's mother proposes that Thomas move in with her and her son. But Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a doctor who just sent Thomas' mom to the hospital, and she insists that the arrangement is for the best. Marianne has uncanny motherly intuition, but doesn't realize that the source of the kids' conflict is that Thomas fears the lustful way Damien looks at him.
Divided into three chapters that follow the trimesters of the French school year, Being 17 doesn't branch off or double back the way Téchiné films often do. Its artiest flourishes — and also weakest moments — are two dream sequences that summon primal fears and desires. More effective is a visit to a high-tech farm that offers a strong and even ominous contrast to the one run by Thomas' parents.
The second of the nighttime visions comes to Marianne, who turns out to be something more than a supporting character. Her story, in fact, is the movie's most poignant. The role is a triumph for Kiberlain, the rare sort of movie actress who specializes in everyday humanity rather than idealized glamour.
Fila and Klein are equally good in roles that, while more predictable in outcome, benefit from small unexpected moments. Both boys experience family changes as well as erotic stirrings, and their confusion is palpable.
The one other major character is the landscape. Snow, mist, and rain, as well as a frigid mountain lake where Thomas likes to skinny dip, are integral to the story. The quandaries of Being 17 may be universal, but Téchiné places them with powerful specificity.