It’s rarely a good sign when a film claims to be “inspired by true events.” Such movies too often present topical material with either handwringing over-seriousness or vapory truthiness, leaving the inspiration behind. In the case of Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s effervescent and razor-sharp film about a pregnancy pact among a group of high school girls, the true life is merely a jumping off point, one that quickly yields a compelling story.
The Coulins’ inspiration is a 2008 incident in which nearly 20 high school girls in Gloucester, Massachusetts decided to get pregnant together. The filmmakers have switched out the setting with their own home—the somewhat dreary French seaside town of Lorient—and crafted a narrative that swirls and eddies around a group of high school girls as disaffected and vulnerable as their American counterparts.
Like any good story about an epidemic, 17 Girls starts with a wholly unremarkable incident. High school student Camille (Louise Grinberg, one of the troublemakers in The Class) finds herself in a family way. But instead of hiding in embarrassment or trying to ignore her swelling belly, she flaunts it. Because Camille is the queen bee, her pregnancy begins to look attractive to her buzzing followers. Within months, bellies begin swelling all over town, and the girls are making plans for what they’re going to do with their babies. Among the things they don’t include in their agenda: not smoking or drinking while pregnant, or considering any of the complications that come with being a single teen mother.
There are plenty of films about counter-productive teen rebellions, the snarling delinquent who kicks against the pricks even though she knows she has more to lose than those in authority. And like those films, this one suggests the girls are like prisoners setting their cell aflame, knowing perfectly well that the only result of this effort to speak out will be more restriction and punishment. With a few pans over bleak streets and empty skies, 17 Girls makes clear how life in this dead-end town seems like a prison to each of the girls, whether it’s Camille, who misses her absent mother, or Florence (Roxane Duran), a lonely wallflower with no discernible family problems.
At first, the girls’ decisions seem little more than a stunt. But then it becomes clear that some of them have bigger goals in mind, as they start talking about how they’re going to all live together after their babies are born and even raise their children communally. It’s a utopian fantasy almost sublime in its absurdity, but wholly believable: there’s little difference between this kind of dreaming and the everyday sort of we’ll-be-friends-forever oaths and loyalty tests always indulged in by teens, both in films and life.
The waking-dream atmosphere of 17 Girls is located somewhere between the razor-wire tension of a Joyce Carol Oates story and the gauzy meanderings of a Sofia Coppola film. This can make for a raw admixture at times, with the floaty camerawork and pungent soundtrack suggesting the girls are immersed in a kind of innocently disobedient game-playing.
In this scenario, their opponents seem overmatched, as the adults around them seem little more than baffled clowns. At a fractious school meeting, parents berate the school principal (Carlo Brandt) for not handling the situation, as though they weren’t involved. This satiric approach to the adults’ incompetence has the advantage of putting the viewer even more solidly inside the girls’ perspective, where everything is now, now, now, and the future seems limitless. But at the same time, the filmmakers make sure to highlight the problems already visible in the girls’ seeming united front: Clementine (Yara Pilartz) ends up paying a boy to impregnate her; some pregnancies don’t go smoothly; and jealousies and rivalries begin to breed in this hothouse environment.
Besotted by the dream of families without parents or rules, the girls in 17 Girls might drive without licenses and drink like there’s no tomorrow, but they are still innocents. The wonder of this remarkable film is that it retains an innocence of its own, even while alluding to the darkness on the horizon. Even as the girls’ fantasy is wildly impractical and self-sabotaging, the film understands its appeal.