At which point does a superficially "nonjudgmental" approach simply seem coy rather than sincerely evenhanded? That's one question raised by 17 Girls, a fictionalized dramatization of a real-life incident involving a rash of teenage pregnancies in one town. Why would 17 young teenagers willingly get themselves pregnant? Such an incident seems incredible to believe on the face of it, and there's certainly something to be said for filmmaking siblings Delphine and Muriel Coulin's non-sensational, cold-sober approach to telling this story. But despite a handful of scenes offering a modicum of context to these characters' seemingly unfathomable decisions, 17 Girls offers precious little genuine illumination.
It all starts "innocently" enough: In the small French town of Lorient, Camille (Louise Grinberg) accidentally gets pregnant but decides to keep the baby. Then she starts encouraging her friends and fellow classmates to have their own babies. Seventeen of them take her up on her clarion call, naturally throwing many of the adults in their small town into a tizzy. As the Coulins tell this tale, however, 17 Girls focuses little on the adults and their reactions to these girls' actions. They're more interested in the dynamic among the girls themselves, most of whom don't seem to have much affection for their superiors anyway.
These girls, in their own individual ways, appear to see having babies as a ticket out of their dead-end lives in this seemingly decaying town. Jean-Louis Vialard's cinematography captures these characters amid settings populated by decrepit, abandoned-looking buildings and expanses of nothingness; one scene even offers a nugget of historical context for this rot via a glimpse of a television broadcast in which a newscaster briefly discusses just how serious a state of disrepair this once-bustling town has been in after the end of World War II. The film also shows us bits and pieces of the girls' home lives: Camille lives with a single mother who's always working, thus making her feel neglected and more reliant on her friends for comfort, and even if she has two parents to ostensibly care for her, the redheaded Clémentine (Yara Pilartz) has a similarly unharmonious go of things at home. In such a despairing environment, it does make a certain amount of sense that these girls would band together, even to the point of getting pregnant in a sort of perverse pact.
But the film feels too detached from these characters for their behavior and its ramifications to be especially thought-provoking or even emotionally affecting. Said detachment might seem like an admirable quality at first blush, theoretically allowing viewers mental room for their own personal reflection, yet knowingly or not, the filmmakers undercut that sense of contemplative observation with occasional, generally risible attempts at visual "poetry": a slow-motion underwater montage focusing on the girls' pregnant bellies; an image of one of the girls sitting on a bed in her room with a big teddy bear behind her; and a soccer ball on fire being kicked around on a beach at night in an attempted evocation of...stolen innocence, maybe? These images seem more freakish than anything else. However much the Coulins may have intended to approach these characters from an empathetic perspective, they ultimately seem as removed from these girls' perspectives as the supposedly clueless adults are.