Dir: Monja Art
The first fiction feature from Austrian writer/director Monja Art, following several shorts and documentary features, is a personal feeling coming of age film about 17 year old Paula (Elisabeth Wabitsch), in love with her friend Charlotte (Anaelle Dézsy) from afar. However, Charlotte is in a relationship with Michael and a frustrated Paula reaches out in the direction of other friends, looking for connection.
The coming of age film about unrequited feelings is a familiar trope - much as it’s a familiar theme in most of our teen years - but Seventeen stakes out slightly different territory for itself in the way it naturally folds that story into myriad other things going on for Paula and her friends. Clearly her feelings for Charlotte are on Paula’s mind a lot, but the film still finds time to develop friendships and stories that don’t always directly affect her between the other characters in Paula’s orbit. This can mean that the film feels bitty, but the throughline of Paula’s experiences remains strong. It definitely seems that Monja Art, if she’s not relating memories from her own teen years, strongly identifies with her lead. The comes across in the clarity of both her writing, which conjures moments that are both very specific and very easy to identify with, and her direction.
Most of the visuals here are functional, well captured, but not wildly individual. However, there are some moments in which the visual storytelling is excellent and shows that Art has an eye for sharp, clear, observation. There is some excellent use of close up detail. In one sequence we see Paula and Lilly both playing with rings on their fingers, fidgeting and passing time until one of them decides that enough time has passed and they can make up over a fleeting fight. A similar moment involves feet. Paula’s French teacher asks her to go to a competition and when he gives her the list of things she needs to practice we see his feet move too close, invading her space - she steps back, but he half re-asserts, moving in again, but not quite as close. Both of these moments, and others besides, use the economy of Art’s visual language to tell us a lot about her characters in moments that don’t need to be verbalised. This is also true of fleeting fantasy sequences, like the one in which Paula imagines the class laughing at her. These moments are just a little more colour saturated, both less ‘real’ and more vivid than life - in that case a fitting depiction of a flash of anxiety.
Art draws plenty from LGBTQ coming of age films that have gone before. Paula’s attempt to forge a relationship with a boy shares much with the storyline between Elin and Johan in Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Amal, while a party scene in which Paula and Charlotte almost kiss before Charlotte pulls away and makes out with her boyfriend is redolent of the club scene in Water Lilies. Seventeen manages to stand on its own though, often thanks to the extremely unactorly performances, particularly that of Elisabeth Wabitsch as Paula. Despite the fact there is plenty of dialogue, there’s also a lot that we have to read without Paula stating it outright. The only time this doesn’t entirely work is in her choice to date a boy. Contextually it’s clear that this is more a (brief) effort to fit in than an attraction, but that comes through less in the character. However, that’s the only stumble in Wabitsch’s performance and she has many excellent moments, building to a very down to earth and realistic picture of Paula.
There are some frustrations to Seventeen. The script could perhaps have used a little tightening, but even the characters we don’t get to know that well seem rich enough to have an offscreen life. Some people may find the many loose ends left dangling to be unsatisfying, but while that’s true to some degree I also thought it chimed with the structure and the emotional content of the film. In coming of age cinema it’s not so much the end point that matters as how the characters find their way, and so it’s okay that we don’t know how every relationship here resolves. All in all, this is a strong debut from Monja Art, it would be nice to see something a little more adventurous from her in the future, but I’ll be looking for whatever that film turns out to be.
Seventeen is now available on UK DVD from Matchbox Films.