In the contemporary climate of cinema, a growing number of films are diversifying their cast and themes to become more LGBTQ+ friendly, a welcome and long-overdue change.
However, even with these developments, there is still a lean towards young, white male characters within the ‘coming of age’ genre. Films such as Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017) and Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018), have plots that are relatively formulaic, and tend to oversimplify.
In comparison to the amount of films about young, homosexual men coming to terms with their identity, films about teenage Sapphic love are rare. There is an unspoken taboo about the struggles of young lesbians, even though they are just as frequent in young adult circles as those of their male counterparts.
This is where I introduce Seventeen (2017). Getting a DVD release on the 25th March 2019, the film is a refreshing and honest tale following Paula, a young Austrian woman on the brink of adulthood, as she pines for Charlotte, her unavailable and seemingly straight school friend. Amidst a sea of hormonal, flippantly amorous teenagers at boarding school, Paula must choose whether to give in to her other peers’ sexual advances, or to cling to the slim hope of ever getting what she truly wants.
In this unusually raw portrayal of modern day pubescence, director Monja Art introduces us to the scarcely entertained notion of young, queer people accepting their sexuality, and exploring it without ridicule or forced repression. According to this take on the new generation, queerness is not a flaw of character for young people today, but rather a means of rebellion, a tool for manipulation, and a greater chance of securing meaningful love.
One of the most striking aspects of the film’s setup is the lack of any real adult guidance. The seventeen-year-olds spend most of their time at boarding school, where most of them reside as well as go to class. Paula is one of the only students that lives off-campus, with her younger sister and her mentally disabled father whom she has to care for. Although, Charlotte also seems to live at home, we never see her parents. The only adult character with any status is the class teacher Lehrer Tangler, a man who has evidently been broken down by the constant barrage of teasing from the students, and has lost any real authority over them.
Without adults around to provide parameters, the students act almost completely at will: they have sex in the corridors of their dormitories, they frequently imbibe alcohol, throw parties, and even go out alone in the woods to hunt for ‘magic mushrooms’. Typically, such wild teenage behaviour is the result of ignorance of consequence, and a failure to understand the ramifications of breaking rules. It is no different in Seventeen; the teenagers’ selfish obliviousness is a running theme throughout – carried over into their concept of sexuality.
Lilli, the antagonist of the film, is a summation of everything her peers struggle with. She is beautiful, youthful, and entirely self-involved. Therefore, she is unable to handle the idea of anyone wanting someone that isn’t her. She has a regular sexual relationship with Ronald, but he is only interested in Paula. This infuriates Lilli, especially as she knows of Paula’s crush on Charlotte. That is two people, both interested in women, and neither of them wants her.
Due to her misshapen understanding of what sex and romantic attraction mean, Lilli interprets this disinterest from both Ronald and Paula as a slight against her, and more importantly, as a challenge. For the majority of the film, she is motivated by jealousy, and makes it her mission to seduce Paula and sleep with her as a means of proving to Ronald that she can beat him at his game, whilst also driving away any chance Paula might have with Charlotte, the real object of her affections. Lilli’s pursuit of Paula is not the result of genuine attraction; in an unusual twist on the typical ‘coming out’ story, Lilli has no issue with foraying into brief ‘lesbianism’ to wreak her revenge.
The ‘homophobia’ storyline that queer YA films usually rely on is noticeably absent in Seventeen, and the result leaves audiences with the fascination of a changing outlook within the new generation.
In the cut off mini-society of their small social circle, the fickle sexual relationships these kids indulge in are all that matters. Aside from a brief school trip Paula takes to Vienna, the film is entirely contained in this one, unnamed, ‘backwater town’. The teens drink at the same bar each night, they go to the same class each day, they obsess constantly over the same unrequited love.
As is evidenced by the dramatic, though quickly abandoned, suicide attempt Tim makes after Paula sleeps with him and then ignores him, these adolescents are so wrapped up in their social bubble that they have forgotten – or perhaps never knew – that the world outside exists. Both Charlotte and Paula have already surrendered themselves to the idea that they will both stay in the town forever, despite their unhappiness.
Although the characters obsess over sex and relationships, the moments they partake in it seem perfunctory and wholly unsatisfying. With poor teaching leaving them devoid of ambition to leave their small town, the desire that might usually be directed towards career or travel is wasted on each other.
Once they get the person they’re after, the passion is gone, and they drift to the next person. The only real sexual vivacity shown is within the imagined daydreams both Charlotte and Paula dream up, where their platonic exchanges suddenly whip up into frenzied kissing and lovemaking – but as this never actually happens, we cannot be sure whether they too would one day grow bored of one another.
In Seventeen, Monja Art submerges viewers into a gritty and disarmingly familiar pool of nostalgia of being a seventeen-year-old. For Paula and her friends, their whole world is school and friends.
For queer teenagers, life at this age can be unbearable due to a deeply-rooted knowledge of being ‘other’. In Seventeen, Art shows us that even in the age of Gen X, where homosexuality is an accepted part of life, the trials of a lesbian seventeen-year-old can be just as difficult.
The real problem, as is reflected in this poignant study of the adolescent school child, is not homophobia, but a lack of understanding of sexuality in general, something that could easily be combated through proper teaching.
The adults of this story have failed these young near-adults by being incompetent like Lehrer Tangler, absent like the majority of the kids’ parents, or too reliant on their underdeveloped minds like Paula’s father.
Seventeen is the coming of age lesbian story that has been missing for some time. Brutal in its honest portrayal of teenage love and loss, while making valid criticisms about the way young adults are treated at an age they are typically thought of as ‘too tough to understand’.
We were all seventeen once; in this film, briefly and disturbingly, we are once again.
Seventeen will be released on DVD on the 25th March 2019 available in both German and French with English subtitles.