Sunday, 16 October 2011

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW: 17 Girls


Get ready for a slew of film reviews from this year's London Film Festival which I've just had the delight of spending four days at. Time gone too soon! I've seen some great films this year - at least two 5 cheese reviews coming up - so if you get a chance to see any of them I'd urge you to do so.

But let's start first with a film from the French Revolutions section of the festival, and the first one I got to see: 17 Girls.

Now when I read about this I laughed and said it sounded familiar to a film I'd heard about through work. I thought the premise sounded great, and of course I adore French cinema so it went on the list. It was only when I saw the words "based on a true story" that things clicked. This was another version of that same film I'd heard about! That film was The Pregnancy Pact. So I did a bit of digging, and found a news story I'd never even heard of before about a series of teen pregnancies occurring within a high school in Gloucester, Massachusetts and rumours surrounding the girls - known as the Gloucester 17 - had become pregnant by a pact they had made together. This has never been proven, but wild speculation and gossip has fed many televisual interpretations and adaptations of the events including stints on Bones, Law & Order and the aforementioned TV movie The Pregnancy Pact starring Thora Birch as a journalist who visits the school to write a story on the girls for TIME magazine. And now there's a new offshoot - from 'the other side of the pond' this time: France.

17 Girls is the debut film from Delphine and Muriel Coulin, and I think they were more inspired by the ideas coming out of the events in Gloucester rather than trying to copy them immediately (though they still use the same number of girls more or less, to suggest a pact or 'cult'). But the setting is now a run down seaside town in France, and our protagonist is the first girl at the school to find herself (accidentally) pregnant at 17 years old.

Popular ring leader Camille (Louise Grinberg - The Class) is struggling with an absent mother and brother when she falls preggers, but decides keeping the baby will do all kinds of wondrous things for her so encourages her friends to get pregnant as well. Out of this comes the idea that they will all live together, buy a big house off child benefits, and take turns babysitting each other's offspring whilst the mother revises for school exams, and so on. The girls feed off this dream. As Camille is a popular figurehead in her high school, other girls start getting pregnant too in order to gain her approval and entrance into this elite club/commune, and aside from Camille herself there are two other stand out characters in the group: small auburn haired Clementine who is best friends with Camille, and Florence, a hanger-oner who becomes part of the "cool group" when she is the first one to reveal to Camille that she is also pregnant.

Clementine, because of her childlike size and general naivety, lacks the confidence to flirt and be with boys, and resorts to paying one of them to sleep with her. Her conservative parents flip, and are terrified she is too small herself to give birth. At one point she runs away, and the girls "dream house" is instead realised as a run down caravan on the beach, where Clem hides out for a few days before the bad weather, cold and loneliness resort her to calling back her worried mother. Florence (The White Ribbon) is a shy girl who is desperate to be included, and is shocked by the news Camille is pregnant which is seemingly because she is pregnant herself, and the two can finally bond over a shared connection. But later in the film it transpires that Florence has been faking her pregnancy with a fake bump/pillow, and she is expelled from the group. Camille's reaction was very interesting at that moment of revelation - the fuel to the pregnancy 'pact' had come from Florence being pregnant too, and the things they could do together. But then she was found to be lying all along. If she hadn't, would 16 other girls be pregnant right now? It's a moment of clarity for Camille who is authoritative in her swagger and so boisterous about the genius of their plan.

For what it's worth, the directors do a great job of portraying the girls as just that: young girls who enjoy pillow fights, splashing in the pool, Coca Cola, and drawing on each other's swollen bellies. They're not ready to be mothers. And they also show the bleakness of the town they live in - it's dead to the girls, who are bored to tears with nothing to do. They have little to no ambition, all they really have is one another. But there's very little input from teachers, parents or the boyfriends/fathers of these unborn babies - there's the odd scare driven lecture or forcing he girls to watch a video of an unedited childbirth - but as viewers we are left to focus on the girls, and their mischievous rebellion by forming a super group of single mums. But ultimately, even they are confused about why they have done this. Is a political statement? Is it a trend gone horribly wrong? Is it peer pressure? Is it a pact? Because they don't preach a message, the film starts losing its way, too.

Unfortunately it was always going to descend into melodrama, which is a shame as I would like to have seen more comment and exploration of the aftermath. But either one of them was going to die (probably Clem as she had problems during the pregnancy, and she would have been the token tragedy) or Camille was going to lose the baby, which she does at the end during a car crash. The lead up to that - with Camille driving the girls around unlicensed - makes you hold your breath a fair few times as you wait for something terrible to happen. But no - she crashes alone. Whether it was deliberate to lose the baby she is now terrified of having, or it was a genuine accident - like the conception - is never answered. Camille disappears soon afterwards, becoming folklore amongst the young mothers who are left to grow up alone with their babies.

17 Girls is enjoyable and everything you expect it's going to be, and stems from a great idea. But there was little substance to it and it had nothing to say, which meant it was unable to rise much above a decent TV movie - though the young cast are fresh faced and vibrant to watch, and it's a true to the bones account of adolescent friendship in a dead beat town.


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