André Téchiné's "Being 17" tells the story of two boys who can't keep their hands off each other, and for reasons that neither of them can easily identify. One day Thomas (Corentin Fila) trips Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) in class, setting off round after round of angry schoolyard fisticuffs, which gradually shift into more private, uncharted terrain. As the two circle each other warily, punching, slapping, dodging and charging, the camera darts restlessly between them, as though trying to locate the exact point where aggression ends and desire begins.
On one level, this intensely moving film, which draws much of its considerable beauty from the snowy mountains and green valleys of its setting in the French Pyrenees, is a telltale illustration of how opposites attract. Damien is skinny, blond and academically gifted, unpopular but cocky enough to wear a rhinestone earring and recite voluminous poetry in class. Thomas is biracial, physically powerful and struggling in school, and he shies away from social encounters, wearing his otherness quietly on his sleeve.
Yet even as he draws attention to the characters' very real differences, Téchiné, who wrote the script with Céline Sciamma, teases out moments of revelation that suggest deeper layers of shared experience.
Damien, who takes self-defense classes with a family friend (Jean Corso), is both physically and emotionally stronger than he looks. And Thomas, who turns out to be a fine student when given half a chance, conceals beneath his hardened demeanor a very real and surprisingly passionate sensitivity.
Most importantly, both boys also come from strong, supportive families, and if "Being 17" ultimately emerges as a love story to set alongside "Wild Reeds," Téchiné's 1994 classic of gay teenage awakening, it chronicles the love that flows between parents and children with no less captivating ardor. Thomas is the adopted son of sheep-and-cattle farmers in the mountains, and he's filled with both happiness and apprehension when his mother, Christine (Mama Prassinos), becomes pregnant after years of miscarriages.
Damien enjoys a comfortable life at home with his mom, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a hard-working physician; his father (Alexis Loret), an army helicopter pilot, returns home for brief, blissful stretches between his tours of duty abroad. The drama is set in motion when Marianne, taking special care to look after Christine during her pregnancy, arranges for Thomas to stay with her and Damien so as to cut short his three-hour commute between school and home. She's unaware at first of the boys' animosity, but even when it surfaces, she remains certain that the two will get over it in the long run.
She's right, of course, but one of the most impressive and honest aspects of "Being 17" is the degree to which it delays and complicates that moment of reckoning. If the film has a governing principle, it's that love doesn't take root in a vacuum, and its path is never perfectly straight. (Speaking of which, the movie wisely never comes down one way or another on its characters' sexuality. As Damien tells Thomas, "I don't know if I'm into guys or just you.")
Thomas and Damien's very real hostility proves as compulsively physical as their attraction, and the lines are further blurred by the minefield of emotional confusion that their redefined home life has become. Sensing Thomas' discomfort in this new environment, Marianne — beautifully played by Kiberlain as a figure of boundless compassion — showers the boy with maternal concern and attention, stirring Damien's jealousy and turning the film into an emotional and psychological triangle.
If "Being 17" represents a heartening return to form for its director (it could be his finest work since 2007's "The Witnesses"), the film feels no less meaningfully shaped by Sciamma, who recently directed the brilliant "Girlhood" and is no stranger to tales of adolescent sexual exploration ("Water Lilies," "Tomboy").
Téchiné seems as invigorated by their collaboration as he is by their unusual choice of setting, a realm whose wild beauty, inclement weather and visibly shifting seasons lend the proceedings a powerfully elemental dimension.
Thomas, his body hardened by long hours spent climbing mountains and tending livestock, is fully one with nature in ways that Marianne and Damien are not. And Téchiné, working as usual with the gifted cinematographer Julien Hirsch, pauses more than once to appreciate Fila's sheer natural beauty as he trudges silently through the open wilderness or dives, fully naked, into an ice-cold lake — an image of innocence, eroticism and superhuman stamina rolled into one.
Sticking to the fleeting time frame suggested by its title, "Being 17" unfolds over the course of a year divided into three chapters, or "trimesters," as they're labeled on screen. It's a reference to the term schedule of the French school system, but also to the new life developing in Christine's womb — a fitting choice for a movie that plays, by the end, like the work of an artist newly born.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles