17 Girls (17 Filles), set in the small, depressed, French seaside town of Lorient, makes a big deal about having been inspired by a true story that took place in the small, depressed, American seaside town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 2008: Eighteen high school girls all turned up pregnant at the same time in a supposed “pregnancy pact.” One of the girls even appeared on Good Morning America, and the story not surprisingly served as fodder for a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode and a Lifetime movie. So what does 17 Girls, the debut feature film from sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, add to the “pregnancy pact” canon? A lot of style, but not much substance.
Camille (Louise Grinberg), the ringleader of her friendship group, accidentally gets pregnant and suggests that her friends join in the fun. She reasons that there will now be someone who will love each of them forever, that the girls can all live and raise the babies together, that at least they will have done something with their lives, and because . . . you know . . . friendship.
For them, “friendship” means lots of hugs and pillow fights and bottles of vodka and tense ultrasounds and sing-alongs in cars while not wearing seat belts. This glimpse of the carefree, peer-pressure-susceptible teen, with a layer of French “everyone smokes so even if you’re pregnant it’s OK to have a few” reasoning, is the most authentic and well-acted aspect of the film. Also well played are their frustrated parents, who exhibit the range of reaction from disappointment to violence, rounded out by a funny town meeting that reveals most adults to be dithering idiots.
But if grown-ups are stupid, then teenagers know everything. And these girls, while nice to look at, seem to know very little, not even why they are doing all of this in the first place.
At times reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, 17 Girls relies on the well-worn use of stylized pubescent bodies and pouty pink lips to titillate in lieu of providing character motivation. While 17 Girls never achieves the subtlety or aesthetic consistency of Coppola’s work, it does have its impressive moments and imagery. Scenes that play upon the endless beauty and potential of the ocean are smartly juxtaposed with those of each girl staring at her constricting bedroom walls post-pregnancy test. But the depth ends there. We never learn what these girls are thinking or how the vague concept of “friendship” turns into the hypnotic and life-altering yoke of peer pressure that these girls suffer beneath.
Camille’s story evolves to a rather unsatisfying, if not thought-provoking, ending that leaves one asking, “Why?” and concluding, “Whatever.” 17 Girls does not completely tell the tale of “young female friendship and naïveté” that it promises, and instead presents one of nihilism and, as we learned in France, n’importe quoi.