Turbulent weather in the mountains

After several polished but pedestrian efforts, André Téchiné, now 73, has come out with a youthful zinger, a film as vibrant and alive as anything he's ever done. It's a gay coming of age flick set in the French Pyranees. Two boys in their last year at the local town lyçée, battling sexual confusion and each other, make war on the way to making love. This looks like the director's best work since his 1994 Wild Reeds, or the 1996 Thieves - or, at least, the most heartfelt thing he's done since his 2007 ensemble AIDS picture The Witnesses.

Being 17's vibrancy has multiple causes: Téchiné's script written in collaboration with young filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood), which holds up the issues involved to a modern perspective; the power of casting, which we'll talk about in a moment; the rough, intimate camerawork of Julien Hirsch that reflects turbulent adolescent emotions; the fluid editing of Albertine Lastera, which keeps the action fast and economical. Everything works together seamlessly, so this feels like a simple, elementary movie - although, on inspection, its plot line packs an awful lot in. In fact so many big things happen in the just under two-hour run-time - the only problem - it's not altogether clear how things end, or what's resolved when the three trimesters of the school year have counted off.

But the acting is satisfying throughout. The foremost pleasure is watching the breathtakingly talented Kacey Mottet Klein in his solidest role yet as the main boy, Damien Delille. There's a convincing and giving performance by Sandrine Kiberlain, a reliable, beloved French actress who gets one of her best roles here too, as his mother. And the charismatic newcomer Corentin Fila is a revelation as Thomas, Tom, the boy at school Damien can't take his eyes off, who starts to bully him.

The Swiss French Klein, a natural thespian of febrile energy, was discovered eight years ago by fellow countryman Ursula Meier, who cast him in House as Isabelle Huppert's little son and then was inspired by his talent to build the whole movie, Sister, around him, costarring Léa Seydoux, for which he was nominated for the César for Most Promising Actor. In between these two he delivered a priceless, all too brief turn as the young Serge Gainsbourg in Joann Sfar's lively biopic. He has a big nose and big ears and a gawky energy. But, actually 17 when this picture was made, he's grown up into a an otherwise normal physicality, even if he's not exactly handsome - and certainly not predictable.

Damien's absentee but much loved father (Alexis Loret) comes home when he can but otherwise is only available on Skype. He is an army helicopter pilot stationed in an unidentified combat zone. Damien's mother Marianne (Kiberlain) is a local traveling doctor. Damien has a pale, sensitive look, and wears a gaudy earring, all of which annoys, and maybe attracts the other boy. Tom is the biracial, adopted son of a farming couple, Jacques (Jean Fornerod) and Christine (Mama Prassinos), who haven't been able to have a natural child. Thomas, who wants to become a veterinarian, lives way up in the Pyranees, though he doesn't have to. He loves it there so much he insists on braving the 90 minutes it takes him each way to go back and forth to school. When the class is divided up into basketball teams, Damien and Thomas are linked by being the last chosen, and while Damien may be different through being sensitive and intelligent, Thomas, who looks sensuous and beautiful, is melancholy, inarticulate, and a determined loner.

Damien's looks and moony recitation of Rimbaud provoke Tom, who trips him and starts bullying him without quite knowing why. But Damien is no wimp: he's taking self-defense lessons every day near home with ex-military family friend Paulo (Jean Corso), and fights back. Thus the two boy's relations turn into a series of violent encounters. Not much is conveyed about classmates. All the attention is on this intense relationship and on the lives of the two boys. Angered by being tripped up, Damien further provokes Thomas by ostentatiously solving a math problem he's just faltered at; Thomas's grades are dropping, for some reason.

We may know where this is going with the two boys, even if we don't know how and when a shift may come. But we don't know what other events will happen to the two families. When Marianne visits her, Toms' adoptive mother Christine turns out to be not only ill with a virus, but pregnant. The kind Marianne, intent that this time she will have a child, sends Toms' mother to the hospital for testing, and, unaware of the boys' hostility, insists to make it easier for Tom that he must come to stay with them.

Major plot details are better not revealed because they're central to how things work out, but anyway revealing them wouldn't convey the true feel of Being 17. It's the unpredictable spaces between events that give the film its raw energy and warmth. The dramatic mountain landscape is a major player, and the often turbulent weather, with storms, rain, and snow to be negotiated by car or on foot. Thomas is frequently bounding across the snow, and he likes to bathe naked in a freezing lake, even when he's with Damien for a fighting match. Those wordless, violent fights do more than anything else to convey the inarticulate longing and confusion that prevail. This is a story that in one form or another has been told many times before, but it doesn't feel tired or familiar. Does it pack too much in toward the end without resolution? Doubtless so. But watching Fila, Klein, and Kiberlain in action is a continual pleasure.

Being 17/Quand on a 17 ans, 116 mins., debuted at Berlin Valentine's Day 2016 (nominated for the Golden Bear, several other awards and nominations), playing at 16 other international festivals. It opened in France 30 March 2016 to rave reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.0/25 reviews). English language trade journal ratings equally high (Metacritic 96% from four reviews). US theatrical debut (Strand Releasing) 7 Oct. (NYC); 14 Oct. in Los Angeles.