17 Girls -- Film Review

17 Girls

Directed by Delphine and Muriel Coulin


Talk about girls gone wild.  This is adolescent rebellion at its most primal.  Seventeen girls, 16-17 years old, in the same high school decide to deliberately get pregnant to affront their parents, their school, and society.  It is based on a true story that occurred in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 2008.   However, this is a fictionalized account.  The filmmakers did not investigate the seminal incident in any great depth beyond public accounts.  This film is an interpretation, not a documentation of what happened in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  It is an important distinction. 

It is not terribly unusual for teenage girls to use pregnancy to make a statement or to be disruptive.  There were roughly 130,000 births to girls between the ages of 10 and 17 in the United States in 2009.1  There were additionally about 200,000 abortions to girls 19 and under in 2007.2  These were not all accidents.  What is interesting about the case portrayed in the film is not the rebelliousness of the girls against their parents and their social milieu, but rather its conspiratorial nature.  The girls used pregnancy as a way of bonding amongst themselves.  Pregnancy was the mortar of female group solidarity.   It makes me wonder if such pregnancy pacts are not more common among teenage girls than is realized. 

We could try to analyze the reasons why the girls did this, although the film did not.  They were clearly rebelling against their parents; they were clearly attempting to create love in an environment where they did not feel very much of it.  They were alienated from their school.  They were anxious about their futures.  But mostly they wanted to be part of a group that affirmed their identity as adult females.  It was a rite of passage which they wanted to make together to bond to one another as girls.  Gloucester, Massachusetts, is approximately 97% white and 80% Catholic, which might explain why adolescent sex is repressed, especially for females.  Birth control is frowned upon and likely unavailable, and abortion was not considered a viable option.  It adds up to an environment that fosters sexual rebellion, either through accident or deliberation.   

But the film was not preoccupied with this.  The filmmakers took this story out of its social and historical context in the United States and displaced it to France.  That in itself probably made the story and the attitude of the film toward the girls more humane and compassionate than they would have been treated in the United States.  The film is not prudish, and it is not moralistic.  I liked the beginning where the girls are shown standing in a group in their underwear awaiting a health exam at school.  All you pedophiles and predators out there, heads up, there is a goodly portion of young female flesh floating around in this film.  The filmmakers actually cast mostly unknown high school girls, some of whom had no prior acting experience.  But the semi-nudity is not gratuitous.  It emphasizes the full fledged sexuality of these girls despite the fact that society does not wish to recognize it.  There is no question that these girls are sexually desirable and sexually capable, which they are about to prove to the whole world in a very undeniable fashion, and it is delightfully visible in their unclad bodies.  Louise Grinberg, who played the lead girl (Camille), reminded me of the young Mariel Hemingway. 

There is an undercurrent of impending danger throughout the film that gives it a suspenseful edge.  One keeps dreading some catastrophe that frequently seems impending.  I won't tell you if it actually occurs.  One such scene occurs in the latter half of the film where some of the girls and a few boys are on a beach late at night around a campfire.  They start kicking a flaming soccer ball around.  They seem joyously reckless and oblivious to the danger.  The scene perfectly reflects what they are doing throughout the film in all of its heedless immaturity:  playing with fire. 

The girls are naive, short-sighted, inexperienced, perhaps even delusional by any practical common sense measure.  But on an emotional level they are profoundly right, and they go forward down their precarious path with steadily firming resolve and without regret.  It is similar, I think, to the bonds males form amongst themselves when they go off to war in military campaigns that are often even more naive, short-sighted, and delusional in their hopes. It is a way of dealing with collective anxiety.  Emotionally and psychologically the girls' attempts to bond to one another through shared sex and shared pregnancy is unquestionably right, and the girls deepening conviction of its right direction grows throughout the film in spite of the obvious danger and hardship that forebodes.  However, the realities of "civilization" and modern society do not support this kind of idealistic vision.    

There is a lot that is not in the film that one would like to know:  What about the boys and their relationships to the girls, both during the pregnancies and after?  What was the social context in which this occured?  Why didn't they have adequate birth control?  Why weren't they educated to experiment with sex in constructive, safer ways?  What happened to the girls in their deliveries and after?  What became of the female bonds that they formed during the pregnancies?  But the film had enough to cover with seventeen girls, so it is fair to excuse some omission.  They had to narrow the focus or risk it becoming too sprawling.  The film is very well constructed throughout.  It is smooth and seamless.  There is nothing superfluous.  The craftsmanship of the filmmakers is excellent. 

There was a discussion after the showing I attended, and I asked Delphine Coulin if they are planning a sequel, and she said they would love to.  I hope they get the backing they need.  The sequel will give us a verdict on part one that could be even more interesting and controversial.   If they still teach sex education in schools, this film should be shown to teenagers.  It sympathetically depicts the sexuality of young girls, and it teaches young people the realities and hazards of sex and pregnancy, as well as some of the backlash from the adult world that it will draw.  I thoroughly loved it.  It should upset some people.  It is in French with subtitles.  Seen April 30, 2012, at the San Francisco International Film festival, Film Society of San Francisco Theater. 

1.  National Vital Statistics Report.  Center for Disease Control and Prevention, United States Department of Health and Human Services.  December 21, 2010, Table 2. 

2.  U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2012, Table 102.