Joseph Sullivan, principal of the high school in seaside Gloucester, Massachusetts, touched off a media firestorm in June 2004 by telling Time magazine that the large number of pregnant teens at his school that year—17 in a student body of 1,200—was partly attributable to “seven or eight sophomore girls” who had “made a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.” After this “pregnancy pact” went tabloid, Gloucester mayor Carolyn Kirk convened a meeting of school and health officials and announced there was no confirmation of a “blood-oath bond.” Sullivan stood by his story, citing reports from his teachers and a former school nurse at Gloucester High. “The affected children need to be left alone with their parents and families to deal with the consequences of their actions,” Sullivan argued. “I will not speak of this matter again.”
Plenty of others have. Since then the idea of teenagers banding together as young mothers has generated a documentary (The Gloucester 18), a novel (Barbara Delinsky’s Not My Daughter), a top-rated Lifetime movie (The Pregnancy Pact), and, inevitably, an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Now it’s even traveled across the Atlantic, returning to our shores as 17 Girls, the writing and directing debut of French sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin (the movie screens this Sunday only as part of Music Box’s Chicago French Film Festival). I haven’t seen any of these other treatments (and I can’t promise you I will), but I can say the Coulin sisters have turned the story into something rather French—not a cautionary tale of society unraveling but a drama of lower-class girls whose sweet sense of sorority blooms into a misguided utopianism. For them pregnancy is power: making their own babies, they can make their own world.
The Coulins gently stress the communitarian aspect from the very first shot, a dreamy montage of several dozen girls in their underwear lining the walls as they wait for exams by the school nurse. Five close friends emerge from the group, laughing and teasing each other. Jogging outside with a gym class, they leap off the path into a gulley and take hits off a hash joint as Camille (Louise Grinberg) confesses that a summertime fling with a boy has left her two months pregnant. (For the most part, the Coulins reveal the girls’ names only as they get pregnant.) “We’re always here for you,” declares Clementine (Yara Pilartz), the youngest, who adores the older girl. With no dad, a neglectful working mother, and a brother serving in Afghanistan, Camille doesn’t think she has much going for her, so she decides to keep the child. “It’ll be cool,” she tells her pals at the school lunch table. “I’ll have somebody who loves me my whole life, unconditionally.”
The Coulins have made the coed high school realistically cruel and catty, and the idea of motherhood as a great opportunity snakes it way through a complicated social maze of envy, exclusion, and resentment. Camille and her friends reject dorky, redheaded Florence (Roxane Duran), giggling loudly as she slinks away from their lunch table. But after Florence learns about Camille’s condition, she manages to break into the clique by confessing to Camille that she’s pregnant too. Suddenly the outsider is in, sitting with the other girls as they revolve on a children’s ride in the park. Florence offers to share babysitting duties with Camille, and before long Camille is urging the others to get pregnant too so they can collect welfare, pool their funds, and share a home. “We’ll be free, happy,” she tells them. “We’ll be in charge. We’ll get respect.” For a bunch of 15- and 16-year-old girls, the idea is intoxicating.
What lured the press to Gloucester originally was a proposal from the school clinic’s medical director and nurse practitioner that condoms be distributed to students; this offended the heavily Catholic community. Set in Lorient, a town on the south coast of Brittany, 17 Girls doesn’t really deal with religion, but the Coulin sisters venture pretty far out into the muddy political waters of teen pregnancy. A school staff meeting over the supposed pregnancy pact quickly fractures into a series of discordant personal opinions, with some teachers taking the side of the girls. “Who are we to judge them?” asks one. “First we must understand their gesture, it’s political.” Eventually the parents discover what’s going on, and a public meeting with the principal turns ugly after the school nurse suggests installing a condom dispenser. “Get them hotel rooms too!” jeers one father. A running joke of the movie is that the girls are unified in their innocence while the adults are divided by their experience.
The Coulins don’t let their teenage heroines off the hook, though—from the very beginning it’s clear these kids have no idea what they’re facing as mothers. “Even your goldfish went belly up!” exclaims Camille’s mom when she learns about her daughter’s pregnancy. The girls go in a pack to get their ultrasound exams, hugging and commiserating, but they don’t take their health too seriously; even in their midterm months they’re still smoking, drinking, and getting high. They fantasize about the great pad they’ll have together, but when Clementine, pregnant and underage, runs away from home, they install her in a sad, dilapidated trailer on the beach. It proves so cold and unpleasant on a windy night that Clementine calls her mother to come get her; the next shot shows her lying on a couch at home, wearing a homemade T-shirt with the legend power over her distended belly.
17 Girls is a perfectly modern movie, smartly paced, with some great punk numbers by Izia Higelin on the soundtrack. But the girls’ radical rejection of the social order kept reminding me of French films from the mid-30s—like Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933), in which boys sow anarchy at a repressive boarding school, or Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), in which a workers’ cooperative takes over a publishing company. “You all lead your life not realizing it’s shit,” Camille tells the school nurse (Noémie Lvovsky) after she’s been kicked out of school. “We’re right to try something else.” With its seaside setting, the movie hardly lacks for water imagery, and scenes of the heroines frolicking together on the beach pop with a youthful sense of possibility. They’re too young to realize that the only new world they’re creating will belong to the one in the stroller.