Tomas and Damien share equal time in Being 17, and often share the screen together as Techine and Sciamma contrive to put get them closer. Their dynamic gradually becomes clearer, with their fights becoming less about animosity and more about the teenage male equivalent of dipping a girl's ponytail in ink. Each boy is testing out what they want in life, realizing that they probably are attracted to other men, but not ready to say such a thing out loud. This manifests in outward aggression, with the poorer Tomas fighting at school and the richer Damien working with an ex-military trainer. They recognize, and hate, a bit of themselves in each other, and as the film continues, each of their interactions take on the randomness of a coin flip, ready to spill over into affection or warfare. Their relationship is never certain, with one pulling together and the other pulling away, or vice versa. Being 17 avoids formula or predictability in its central conflict, as there's never a definitive sense that Tomas and Damien are going to be able to work through their insecurities and admit what they want, or if those insecurities are too high an obstacle to surmount.
As Damien, Klein continues to make his mark as an ascendant talent. Graduating from the gamin child actor of Sister to the intense teenage actor that he is here, Klein demonstrates a screen presence that promises continuously impressive roles and performances. His Damien is the less interesting character of the two leads, since his is a story oft-told in coming of age tales and there's less to be caught off guard from, but as the more forward and daring one, he exudes a lustful aggression towards Tomas, who's far more unsure of himself. Klein functions as a credible romantic lead and a credible surly teen, often in the same scene.
The biggest surprise of Being 17 is Fila, making his screen debut in the most impressive way possible. Tomas' life is full of subtext and doubt, both of which the film subtly presents to the viewer. He's an Algerian immigrant taken in by French parents, marking him as a double outsider within his own home and community despite the love his parents obviously have for him and he for them. His school assumes the worst about him, his mother is finally having a baby of her own, and he is deeply wary of his feelings about Damien. Later in the film, he visits a corporate farm that vastly outproduces his family's rustic one, putting an already tenuous economic standing further at risk. All this pressure plays out on Fila's face and in stark moonlit scenes that find Tomas diving naked into the frozen mountain lakes, an act of cleansing and masochism that beautifully illustrates his position. Fila carries all this dramatic weight on his shoulders in heartbreaking fashion, beaming his vulnerability out of the screen while asserting the obvious lie that everything's fine.
Techine and Sciamma's affecting film is packed with incident in its story, but the goings-on are anchored by the romance at its center. Its two leads circle each other like stags, occasionally butting heads and occasionally laying down their arms. At the same time, it pulses with a nervous energy and it revels in stillness. Being 17 is transporting in the way it so gets being a teenager, where adult responsibilities and choices clash with a still-forming brain and result in an uncertainty that can be paralyzing. A-