In 2008, Massachusetts’ Gloucester High School drew international attention when it was reported that seventeen of its students had become pregnant during the school year. Because of a statement made by Principal Joseph Sullivan in an interview with Time magazine, word spread through the media that the girls had made a pact with one another to intentionally get pregnant. One student, Lindsey Oliver, refuted this during an appearance on Good Morning America: “There was definitely no pact. There was a group of girls already pregnant that decided they were going to help each other to finish school and raise their kids together.” I don’t know which version of the story is true. What I do know is that, when the number of student pregnancies increases by a factor of four over the course of one academic year, something has gone awry somewhere along the way.
This story has been dramatized in 17 Girls, which shifts the setting from Gloucester to a small seaside town in Brittany, France. It’s founded on the assumption that a pact was indeed made. That is itself easy enough to comprehend. The title characters, on the other hand, are baffling mysteries. Their understanding of pregnancy reveals something much more alarming than mere naïveté. At first, they regard it as something fun to try out, as if they were experimenting with a new drug. As the number of pregnancies increase, they come to see it as a form of protest against their parents and authority figures. The plan they devise, which essentially boils down to becoming an unconventional family unit, shows the poorest comprehension of real-world logistics such as jobs, money, and time. Because they’re so shockingly ignorant, they come off as real teenagers – impulsive, reckless, and unable to recognize that actions have consequences.
Nevertheless, there’s something missing from this movie. We see what these girls are doing, but we’re absolutely at a loss to explain why they’re doing it. The central character, who was also the first to get pregnant, is Camille (Louise Grinberg). Her home life is by and large not examined, although we do see that her mother has a history of working long shifts and that her brother, a soldier, has been deeply troubled since finishing a tour of duty in Afghanistan. It also seems as if her father has long since left the picture. I grant you that these are not ideal circumstances. That being said, an adequate explanation for her immature, defiant attitude remains elusive, as does a plausible reason for her staying pregnant. I refuse to believe she was never taught about sex; even with a largely absent mother, a scene in which classroom full of students watching a graphic video of a woman giving birth makes it obvious that she has been exposed to sex education.
Most of the other girls aren’t featured, and the few that are have such minor roles to play. This is probably because they’re of the same perplexing mindset as Camille; they want to prove to the world that they can successfully take a shortcut on the road to independence and adulthood. After they learn of Camille’s pregnancy, they decide to follow suit. Some have one-night stands at parties. Some manage to rope in their boyfriends, all of whom are apparently not a part of their master plan. One girl resorts to paying a boy to have sex with her. This would be Clementine, or Clem for short (Yara Pilartz). All of the girls are underage, but she cannot be any older than fourteen or fifteen, and this begs the question of her upbringing. We do see one scene in which her father slaps her, but I suspect this was out of anger over her pregnancy and not indicative of an abusive childhood. Nevertheless, she becomes a runaway.
We’re eventually told that the seventeen pregnancies resulted in the births of fifteen babies. Given that there’s nary a scene in which these obviously pregnant girls aren’t drinking and smoking both tobacco and marijuana, it’s a miracle there were even that many births. The behavior itself, I suppose, is indicative of authentic teenagers, who tend to have trouble seeing the big picture. But considering the several shots of ultrasounds, and considering that no one said anything about the babies that were born defective, I’m forced to conclude that the outcome isn’t consistent with reality. In all fairness, no one said anything about the babies that weren’t born defective, either. For all we in the audience know, every one of them could be chemically, neurologically, and perhaps even physically damaged.
The ending, during which a voiceover narration turns the character of Camille into what can only be described as a figure of legend, is both abrupt and thematically inconsistent with the rest of the film. It’s also immensely unsatisfying, as it leaves so many things unresolved. What message is 17 Girls trying to send? That a teenager will dream big dreams no matter what? I’m not exactly sure what that has to do with becoming pregnant at such a young age. I think what most disappointed me about this film was that it wasted an opportunity to convincingly examine a story I always thought was fascinating. Let’s assume that the Gloucester students made a pregnancy pact. What was the thinking behind it? What did they hope to achieve? That’s the kind of psychological study one doesn’t normally come across. Whatever psychology was applied to the characters of this movie was kept hidden from view.
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About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi (Chris_Pandolfi)
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more