In a small working-class town, one high-school girl after another tests positive for pregnancy. Eventually, 17 girls in their mid-teens are expecting, and there are no shotgun weddings planned. In fact, the girls form a sort of pregnancy sorority, discussing possible baby names, going to doctor’s appointments together, and daydreaming about bringing up their children as friends. What’s going on in these girls’ heads? Are these pregnancies acts of rebellion? Or are the girls just bored and stupid?
Filmmakers Delphine and Muriel Coulin took this real-life incident, which happened in 2008 in Gloucester, Mass., and moved it to Lorient on the coast of Brittany for their debut feature “17 Girls.” Slow moving and whimsical at times, the film has a languid force to it, similar to pregnancy, in fact. Nothing much happens, but you find yourself totally absorbed.
Camille (the beautiful Louise Grinberg) becomes pregnant by a boy she likes casually, and by the time she’s decided to let the pregnancy continue, her girlfriends have warmed to the idea and set out to become pregnant too. The first to follow Camille, who is the queen in her little circle, is Florence (Roxanne Duran), a girl desperate to get into the clique. Pregnancy seems to be her ticket in, and soon the others are celebrating when their pregnancy tests show plus.
The film opens with a narrator noting that another freakish natural event, an invasion of ladybugs, hit the seaside town during that same year, conflating the insects and the pregnant girls. The filmmakers treat them in much the same way--lovely, fragile creatures living out their biologic destinies. Long takes show us the girls brooding in their rooms, which are often filled with stuffed animals, or staring out the windows. A lethargy seems to hang over them as their bodies swell. Yet they seem content and even excited. They come up with goofy plans to live together with their babies, totally oblivious to what’s involved in caring for an infant. It’s a fun project, more satisfying than trying out new hairstyles or learning to knit. The fathers of their children are only tangentially involved; one of the girls actually pays a boy to impregnate her.
Almost all the girls are ciphers; the only one we learn anything about is Camille and she never seems quite real. Her mother works a lot and likes to hang out with her own friends, and Camille’s brother is in the military. There’s the sense that Camille feels neglected and lonely and she wants a baby who will love her unconditionally. (She actually says this.) Although her mother is furious at first, she settles down and accepts the reality. No one suggests that the girls get abortions, and the girls themselves know that they can’t be forced to give up their babies if they want to keep them. Pressure is put on the school principal, who shows all the students graphic films of childbirth. Nothing works. These scenes in the school can be amusing, with sputtering adults confronting their powerlessness and social workers arguing about the girls’ motives.
The actual situation is far from funny, of course. Whatever their intentions, it’s unlikely that 15-year-old teenage girls make good mothers, and their own lives are irrevocably changed. The filmmakers aren’t overly concerned. Totally without judgment or analysis, they take us along a path a group of girls impulsively started on and followed to the end.