Seventeen (Siebzehn)

Austria (2017) Dir. Monja Art

“Why must I be a teenager in love?”

If you were around in 1959 you’ll recall Marty Wilde (or Dion if you’re American) singing the above lament to countless kids in the same situation. The title of Seventeen is also a rather festive giveaway regarding what to expect from the second feature from Austrian writer-director Monja Art.

The end of term is nigh for the students of a boarding school in a small rural town in Lower Austria and summer holidays beckon. Like many kids their age, the exploration of their sexuality is in full swing; finding herself getting plenty of attention from both sexes is Paula (Elisabeth Wabitsch), lusted after by nerdy boy Tim (Alexander Wychodil) and blonde party girl Lilli (Alexandra Schmidt).

Yet Paula is in love with another girl Charlotte (Anaelle Dézsy), currently dating a boy, Michael (Leo Plankensteiner), preventing Paula from declaring her feelings to Charlotte. Despite the odd moments of friendship which give Paula hope, Michael is always there to ruin the mood, driving Paula to experiment elsewhere, though not always with desired results.

Seventeen is an unashamedly progressive film in how it normalises lesbian love and mixed sexual identity amongst teens rather than treating them as pariahs and subjecting them to abuse and discrimination from their peers. In fact, there is not a single instance of anything like this at all here, which is refreshing for people in the LGBT community but for those of us tired of the same old bigotry/confused teen narrative.

Certainly, there is a lot of mileage filmmakers can get out of this storyline in order to show support and awareness of this for the gay community and it makes for stirring drama in the right hands. However, a film like Seventeen needs to be made to offer insight into the modern viewpoint, highlighting how teens are less judgemental and switched on to this issue than many adults are.

Interestingly, adults are almost non-existent in this film, aside from Paula’s mentally ill father (Reinhard Nowak), her teacher Mr. Tangler (Christopher Schärf) leaving the kids to work everything out on their own terms although one has to question if there is any adult supervision in their lives for when things get beyond their callow control.

Taking its cue from the many great neo realist films before it, the story doesn’t unfold via structured scenes, life happens and our young cast go with the flow. Any subplots that exist are mostly tangential, usually pairings comprised of boys and girls licking their wounds having failed to succeed with Paula. The sole unrelated one involves Herr Tangler choosing Paula to represent the school at a French speaking competition that has no discernible payoff.

Most of the time, the students are doing silly teen things, like drinking, smoking and bonking once a connection has been made between those lusting after each other from afar. There appears to be someone for everyone though not all unions are immediate, but they prove to be the more worthwhile ones, unless you are comic book geek Tim, in which case that one night you did have with Paula was a meaningless rebound thing.

Sexual politics are at play too, showing us that teen boys are just as guilty as adult men in believing they are an irresistible Adonis; one chap who strikes out with Paula at every step simply shrugs it off and sleeps with a willing Lilli because he can, though she foolishly thinks their arrangement is exclusive. It’s quite pitiful how it comes to an end with neither looking good out of it.

Paula possessing an impressively powerful gravitational that ensnares both genders is a curious plot point that the audience is left to ponder where the appeal is. It’s not that she isn’t attractive but unlike her peers, she does nothing with her appearance, clad in plain clothes, her hair always tied up in a bun (even at the French competition) and she is never seen in make-up, yet for the purpose of this story she is a sexual holy grail.

It could of course be that we are not supposed to know and this is a tale of not being able to help who you fall in love with, which definitely applies to Paula as she imagines many an intimate moment with Charlotte during a platonic meeting, but is the feeling mutual? Charlotte seems rather salty whenever stories about Paula and Lilli hit the class grapevine, true or not.

Lilli is the wild card of this tale, openly promiscuous with any one and couldn’t lay it on any thicker with Paula if she tried. Like most of the cast, the motives and actions are annoying ambiguous, and remain so to the end, with Lilli being the worst offender, as we never know if she is either being a prissy madam who gets what she wants, is out to usurp Charlotte or is genuinely attracted to Paula.

Comprised of inexperienced first time actors, the cast prove a compelling bunch, each one fitting their roles as if it were their own skin, this natural energy and lack of artifice in their performances is key to the impact of the story and the themes hitting home. Elisabeth Wabitsch is absolutely one to watch for the future, no doubt her star has been in the ascendant in the two years since her debut here.

Monja Art lives up to her surname with her presentation but only where it needs, it, using camera focus, colour, and different angles to create the fast moving yet uncertain world these teens live in. The general mood is otherwise sparse, unfussy and sometimes hopeless but never dour, and the direction adapts accordingly.

Other filmmakers can learn a lot from Seventeen in how to make a positive and empathetic drama about LGBT issues without resorting to the usual tropes and clichés of marginalising gay people to create sympathy or go overboard with the faux flag waving to show support.