17 Girls is allegedly inspired by true events, but this diffident, dreamy film is so insubstantial it’s hard to believe there’s a speck of reality to be found in it. Set in an economically downtrodden French seaside town, the movie follows what happens when a pretty teenager finds out she’s pregnant — and easily persuades all her friends, then half the school, to get pregnant, too.
Camille (Louise Grinberg) has her reasons for wanting to keep her baby; she pouts that her single mother doesn’t pay her enough attention and tells her friends that at least a baby will always love her unconditionally. What follows is less believable: When she suggests her friends get pregnant, too, they immediately agree and set out to accomplish the task at the next party.
Soon, an epidemic rages: Girls at the school are getting pregnant faster than you can throw away a condom. The agitated parents blame the principal. The principal says it’s not his fault. Why is this happening? Adults meet and throw out various and often ridiculous responses: “This is a step backward!” or “It’s good they decide over their bodies. … we’ve made progress.” They sound almost, but not quite, as foolish as their daughters.
Writers/directors Delphine and Muriel Coulin have a nice feel for how groups of teenage girls behave in packs: Camille and her friends often roll into each other like puppies, and the girls are fiercely loyal, if not particularly intelligent. The filmmakers also capture the faulty logic and impractical nature of adolescent dreams: Camille believes the expectant moms can use money they get from the state to rent a house where they’ll all live happily together, an idea that’s enough to cause the most liberal American heart to squirm uncomfortably.
But the Coulins never bother to offer any explanation for why the other girls would join Camille in this ill-advised quest; the behavior is treated as a random event, like the infestation of ladybugs that plagues the town. We rarely get a glimpse of the home lives of the other girls. Are they sad? Bored? Desperate? Stupid? Impossible to say. There’s some talk later in the movie that Camille is forging some sort of rebellion against the older generation’s stunted lives, but that explanation comes too late to make any sense.
And while teenage ennui is definitely a player in many adolescences, the girls are ill-defined and indistinguishable from each other, uninterested in any of the things teenagers tend to like (music, clothes, movies, pop culture). They sit around their bedrooms brooding (unless a TV film clip of someone commenting on the phenomenon is required; then they watch TV).They’re not even interested in boys except as a means to an end. One sad girl who looks younger than her friends has to pay a boy to impregnate her. Lucky for her, every girl apparently gets pregnant on the first try.
The girls don’t exist as individuals; they exist only as a group. Perhaps the Coulins have some greater meaning in mind, but in the words of one of the unhappy parents: Isn’t this a step backward?
Cast: Louise Grinberg, Juliette Darche, Roxane Duran.
Writers/directors: Delphine and Muriel Coulin.
Producer: Denis Freyd.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 86 minutes. In French with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Tower.