In the French port city of Lorient on the Atlantic, something mysterious is happening to high-school girls. As if on cue, a wave of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old females gets pregnant at more or less the same time. Parents and teachers are baffled — some moms and dads resort to violence — and the more the adults agonize, the more the girls smirk. We’ll show them, the teenage rebels tell each other. We’ll do it differently than they did with us.
Leader of the pack is Camille (Louise Grinberg), a beautiful, headstrong young woman constantly at odds with her harried single mother (Florence Thomassin). Camille apparently got pregnant accidentally, but then decided to make her condition into a sort of crusade against neglectful parenting. “I’ll have someone who will love me my whole life, unconditionally,” she sighs as she gazes off into the distance. Her friends follow along, some wholeheartedly and some, like poor little red-haired outcast Florence (Roxane Duran), in a sad attempt to fit in.
So we have the whole running time of Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s 17 Girls to study these girls as they grope their way toward an uncertain future, squatting in an abandoned mobile home and making plans for a commune where they can smoke, drink, and eat all the candy they want. The girls don’t seem to care anything at all about the boy fathers, who have almost no part in their lives except as unwitting accomplices. The lone young man whose opinion counts is Camille’s older brother, on leave from Afghanistan.
In their first feature narrative, the Coulin sisters spin a web of ironic, double-edged fantasy over the girls of Lorient and their child’s-eye view of life. It occurs to us at first this is a classically French way to tell a routine social-problem story — but then we discover that the Coulins adapted their screenplay from a real-life pregnancy-epidemic case in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2008. None of that reflects in the face of Camille, the Pied Piper of motherhood, and her credo, “Nobody can stop a girl who dreams.”