Tuesday, September 18, 2012

17 Girls: Pregnant Peer Pressure

It was a terrible plan, made possible by the Massachusetts welfare system. Of course, the French could relate.  The notorious Gloucester incidence of mass high school pregnancy is transplanted to the similarly depressed city of Lorient, where much outrage and scandal results when seventeen students deliberately seek impregnation and emancipation in Delphine & Muriel Coulin’s 17 Girls (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

At first, Camille is alarmed by her unplanned pregnancy, but she soon embraces it, out of necessity and defiance.  For those who seek the type-A trendsetter’s approval, a growing stomach becomes a quick ticket to acceptance.  Camille begins to envision a future in which they all drop out of school and live communally, pooling their welfare payments.  They would be the village raising the children they are admittedly not very interested in, but would serve as their breadwinners with the state.

Not surprisingly, Lorient parents are quite alarmed by this turn of events, even those whose daughters have not yet fallen in with Camille’s group.  Some express their displeasure rather vehemently, which only drives the girls further away.  Frankly, for many of the pregnant students, this seems like a reasonable option in a dead-end city like Lorient.

The Coulins give their hot button subject a consistently matter-of-fact treatment, leaving the film open to many possible interpretations.  Camille could easily have been portrayed as a cult-like figure exercising a malevolent influence over her peers.  Yet, she is a largely sympathetic figure.  Still, they do not bury their heads in the sand with respects to the dangers of underage pregnancy, depicting the very real health risks for Clémentine, a petit girl with a comparatively weak constitution.

As Camille, Louise Grinberg announces herself as a star of the future.  She clearly establishes her character’s manipulative nature, but also her capacity for genuine concern.  Viewers might feel like they are watching a manifestation of the dark side of Blair from The Facts of Life.  Yara Pilartz is also quite compelling as Clémentine.  However, the other fifteen girls tend to come and go from the frame without making an appreciable impact.

To their credit, the Sisters Coulin do not take a lot of easy outs.  Nonjudgmental to a fault, audiences will likely leave 17 Girls knowing they saw something, but unsure how they feel about it.  It is not likely to win many fans with the Lorient Chamber of Commerce either.  While a tighter focus on fewer girls might have worked better, several worthy performances still have room to shine through.  Recommended for Francophiles with a taste for social issue dramas, 17 Girls opens this Friday (9/21) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza.