Home Video Hovel- 17 Girls, by Rita Cannon
In a 2000 essay on James Cameron’s Titanic, Lorrie Moore speaks of female adolescence as “the most powerful life force human nature has to offer.” Directors Delphine and Muriel Coulin bring this idea to its logical, literal conclusion in 17 Girls. Inspired by the 2008 “pregnancy pact” case in Gloucester, Massachusetts (and set in a similarly economically depressed small town in France) it follows Camille (Louise Grinberg) a beautiful and popular girl who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant. Camille is not as upset about this as one would expect. She’s nervous about breaking the news to her parents, but the prospect of actually giving birth to and raising a child sounds kind of exciting. She tells her friends that she’s glad this has happened. It will give her a sense of purpose, and something to do after school. It’s difficult to tell at the outset how much of Camille’s cockeyed optimism is real, and how much is a brave face she puts on for her friends. Either way, her friends buy it, and within days they’ve all agreed to a plan: break free of their provincial lives by getting pregnant, moving into a giant house which they’ll all share, and raising their children together.
The pregnancy pact in Gloucester turned out not to be a pact at all – just a group of girls who were already pregnant, and talked about helping each other out once their babies were born. They weren’t trying to get pregnant, but their impoverished town and frequently broken families gave them such a grim view of the future that they saw no reason to try not to get pregnant, either. The young mothers in 17 Girls live in similar circumstances. When Camille’s older brother hears the news, he asks if the baby will be “a soldier boy or an unemployed girl.” But by adhering to the idea of there actually being a pact, the Coulins inject their film with an even bigger and more relatable theme – the desperation of teenagers to fit in, the stormy emotions that define those years, and the near impossibility of making rational decisions while in the midst of them.
The film is a quiet but powerful snapshot of that threshold between childhood and adulthood. You can see it in the faces of Grinberg and the other young actresses, all of whom are stunningly beautiful (I guess there are no homely teenagers in France?), and who can go from looking like supermodels to frightened children and back again with the slightest change of expression.
It can also be read as an allegory for the social movements of mid-century America. The cooperative group living situation the girls envision sounds a lot like a commune, and they jokingly refer to each other as hippies more than once. The party scene that becomes ground zero for their plan is set to a cover of “Ain’t Got No” from Hair. Camille claims that sixteen is the perfect age at which to have a child, because “we’ll understand them – there will be no generation gap.” The idea that being significantly older than your child might actually be a good thing, that those extra years might afford you some wisdom, never crosses their minds. It’s taken for granted that when people grow older, it means they understand less, not more. Camille and her friends have probably never heard the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” but if they did, they’d agree wholeheartedly.
I probably don’t have to tell you that the girls’ plans don’t work out. The particular way in which they go sour is unexpected, but rings true emotionally and seems inevitable in hindsight. It’s an effective portrait not only of adolescents in revolt, but of what can happen when people who were once united by a goal lose sight of it. In this case, there’s not much left by the end but dashed hopes and a series of short-sighted, now irreversible decisions.