“Seventeen” is a Meander Through Sexuality and Adolescence

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According to its more or less official blurb, the plot of Austrian movie “Siebzehn” (“Seventeen”) is this: “Somewhere in Lower Austria; the school term is drawing to a close and the summer holidays are not far off. Boarding school pupil Paula, seventeen, is secretly in love with her friend Charlotte. But Charlotte’s going out with Michael. Lovelorn, Paula decides to try and take her mind of things by getting involved with schoolmate Tim, whose feelings for her are at least genuine. Paula has no idea how often Charlotte thinks of her. And then there’s Lilli, who is just dying for someone to fancy her and tries to play the wild seductress. Paula must decide if she wants to follow her own feelings or yield to other people’s.”

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Perhaps some viewers will view it that way, but to me it seemed that this movie is about the awkwardness of adolescence and the bittersweetness of unrequited love. Paula has a crush on Charlotte, who clearly likes her back but is afraid to act on those feelings and leave her longterm boyfriend. Tim is desperately in love with Paula, who does not return his feelings and barely registers his existence. Lilli engages in wanton promiscuity in an effort to fill an emotional void in her life. These characters live in a rural part of Austria with no real big dreams or wild aspirations, just waiting for school to end.

Paula is a very engaging, sympathetic character with whom audiences will easily identify, but Charlotte, too, is interesting. In an interview, writer/director Monja Art said of Charlotte: “She is in a happy relationship with Michael, but she is also kind of in love with Paula — and she finds herself in the situation of not being able to decide between the two of them.” Art would know, but it feels more like Charlotte has her answer, just not the bravery to go through with it. One of the unexpected but interesting quirks of the movie is that in addition to seeing Charlotte’s longing looks at Paula, we also see her fantasies; brief snippets of a life she could have if she just moved one inch closer.

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The first thing that an American viewer is likely to notice about this movie is how cinematography and direction play out differently than in American movies. The pacing, scope, and even color are noticeably different. American movies tend to have bright filters, with tight pacing and sets that often encompass multiple locations. “Seventeen,” in contrast, has more muted colors, graphic sex scenes, and significantly slower scenes that roll out organically, a more European approach that can at times be frustrating for viewers used to a faster pace. Nor are all scenes integral to the plot; for example, Paula’s trip to Vienna for a French competition. The plot and characters, however, are universal: lovelorn Paula, tragic Tim, conflicted Charlotte, and sexually precocious Lilli.

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Newcomer Elisabeth Wabitsch is a standout as Paula, but the entire young cast does an excellent job of capturing the kaleidoscope of teenage emotions: infatuation, boredom, sadness, heartbreak, hope, and fear. One of the main themes of the movie is drawn from a quote from Proust about crushes, but overall, the movie is more an ode to adolescence than a love story.

More information abut the film can be found at Austrianfilms.com.

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