A young man tramples through the snow in fast, furious, headlong motion in the beginning of André Téchiné’s Being 17, a film that proceeds at a similar clip. So have many of the director’s previous works: Téchiné, who began making movies five decades ago and remains the best-known of France’s post–New Wave auteurs (his breakthrough in the United States was 1994’s semiautobiographical Wild Reeds), often explores lives upended by desire. Téchiné’s restless movies can tip over into full-blown hysteria, though, the screeching and wailing of his characters not so much communicating emotional turmoil as evincing bewildering, aggravating tonal shifts. Chaos reigns in Being 17, as it must in a film about the turbulent relationship between two adolescent boys. But here the psychic disorder advances the story rather than derails it.
Téchiné co-wrote Being 17 with Céline Sciamma, a director 37 years his junior (he was born in 1943, she in 1980). Her three features to date — Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014) — plumb the erupting desires and in-flux identities of teenage girls. The intergenerational collaboration proves fruitful: Being 17 has a consistent vitality and cohesion that’s largely been missing from Téchiné’s films since Wild Reeds, which also centers on adolescence. This new movie, pivoting on three characters, also features one of the best casts that the filmmaker has assembled since The Brontë Sisters (1976), his superb literary biopic starring, among others, the preeminent Isabelles of the era, Adjani and Huppert.
The high schooler who moves with such fervor through the woods of the Pyrenees is Tom, played by agile newcomer Corentin Fila. The adopted biracial son of farmers, Tom has a particular loathing for classmate Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein, a gangly, beak-nosed actor as commanding here as he was as a kid in Ursula Meier’s Home, from 2008, and Sister, 2012). The enemies become roommates after Damien’s mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain, a too-little-known performer here who elevates any project she’s in), a physician tending to Tom’s own bedridden mom, suggests that the boy move in with them. The ménage invites all kinds of intriguing triangulations, with each character grappling with sexual loneliness (Marianne’s beloved husband, an army pilot, is stationed overseas in an unnamed war-torn nation).
The inchoate hatred the two teenagers feel for each other — often expressed via blows to the head and chest — masks and morphs into its opposite. That’s not an especially novel tack, of course, but what does feel new and urgent is Tom and Damien’s first love scene, one in which desire is both anarchic and democratic. “You couldn’t even see I was scared,” Tom says to Damien before they get into bed. Being 17 boldly examines the fear of letting go and giving in — the terror, in short, of becoming an adult.