Ballooning bellies are all the rage at a provincial French high school in “17 Girls,” the confident debut of sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin. Based on a true story that happened in the U.S., “Girls” relates how the accidental pregnancy of an attractive teen leads to an epidemic of knocked-up peers. Though the protags’ hormones — and, some parents might argue, wits — might be out of whack, the writer-helmers impressively keep the pic’s tone gently oscillating between light comedy and drama. Locally, teens could give this cult status, while offshore, the debate-ready topic and model-pretty cast will stimulate sales.
Camille (Louise Grinberg) is a 17-year-old stunner who, during a break from a physical education class in the dunes, tells four of her girlfriends she’s pregnant. When a hanger-on, Florence (Roxanne Duran), announces she’s pregnant too, she’s suddenly accepted as part of Camille’s in-crowd. The quintet’s subsequent pregnancy pact rapidly spreads to the entire class as it becomes clear that a baby bump is the accessory of the season.
The girls’ rash actions sit less well with their parents and the adults in charge at school. Camille’s single mom (Florence Thomassin) is angry, while the school nurse (Noemie Lvovsky) is puzzled. Are the teens’ actions a collective feminist statement or reckless behavior inspired by the adolescent need to belong and a naive sense of optimism about the future?
The Coulins, who also wrote the screenplay, do not take sides, simply observing the teens as they deal with and react to what is happening around and inside them. The narrative neatly balances slightly surreal events with a realistic setting, a small bunch of protags within a much larger group, and moments of drama (one of the girls is thrown out by her parents and ends up staying in a dingy beachside trailer) with moments of laughter and a strong sense of sisterhood.
Impressively, the rookie scribe-helmers’ sense of equilibrium is unerring and also surprisingly subtle. Some of the humorous scenes, such as when the gang goes to buy pregnancy tests in bulk, are straightforwardly funny, but some of the comedy is more subversive, with auds at times laughing at the schoolgirls, and their awkward behavior and naive thinking, rather than with them.
These subtle shifts back and forth are possible because the cast plays everything straight. In the lead, Grinberg (“The Class”) is luminous, though like her peers, she’s distractingly pretty. This might help explain why their male classmates don’t have any problems lining up as disposable sperm donors, though the complete absence of any sense of responsibility from all the 17 fathers seems rather unlikely.
Versatile d.p. Jean-Louis Vialard (“Tropical Malady,” “Inside Paris”) lensed “Girls” on one of the Canon hybrid photo/film cameras, an increasingly common tool that’s both agile and light. Cinematography looks aces, with crisp colors and beautiful use of the shallow depth of field typical of the equipment. Lighting is abundant, bouncing of the walls of the girls’ bedrooms, where virginal whites and blood reds dominate. The rest of this French indie’s assembly is equally pro.