In 2008, 18 students at the public high school in Gloucester, Mass., became pregnant, four times the school’s typical rate. Time magazine claimed the spike was due to a “pregnancy pact” among the girls, and the world’s media decamped to the seaside town to cover the story. Never mind that the school principal, Time’s only source for the incendiary P word, later said that he didn’t recall using the term in the first place; there was something in the idea of a group of high-schoolers intentionally becoming pregnant that seized the public imagination. It was teenage pregnancy’s Kony 2012 moment.
Now the story has crossed the Atlantic. The movie 17 Filles (17 Girls), which just had its U.S. premiere in the Rendez-Vous With French Cinema festival and will be receiving wider U.S. distribution later this spring, transposes the Gloucester story to Lorient in Brittany, and revives the dynamic of a group of girls making a coordinated effort to get pregnant. This isn’t the first fictional treatment of the Gloucester story, though it’s the best so far. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit riffed on the story, and Lifetime’s 2010 made-for-TV movie version, The Pregnancy Pact, drew 23 million viewers, smashing several ratings records for the network. Comparing 17 Filles to Lifetime’s Pregnancy Pact is like comparing a fine Camembert to a package of Kraft Singles. The French movie is coherent and beautifully filmed, but it’s a European take on an American story, and as so often happens, it fundamentally misunderstands key facts of American life.
Co-writer/director Muriel Coulin was at the first screening at Lincoln Center (her collaborator and sister, Delphine Coulin, didn’t make it to New York because she’s having a baby of her own), and she admitted that the pregnancy pact idea worked its magic for them, too. Although she and her sister are both relatively well-known in France (Muriel has worked as a cinematographer and camera operator for directors like Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Delphine is a successful novelist), their first idea for a feature-length film didn’t get funded. But when they pitched the idea of 17 high-schoolers getting knocked up in unison, it was “easy” to raise the budget of 3 million euros—producers got the concept as soon as the Coulins told them what happened in Gloucester. They chose to set the movie in their hometown of Lorient because, like Gloucester, it’s a working-class port with a fading economy.
Like the Lifetime movie before it, 17 Filles presents the pact as both a desperate attempt to become part of a clique and an adolescent fantasy of communal living. The students are lonely—the girls are all shown sitting alone in their bedrooms, staring at the walls—and ill-served by their parents, who are too distracted by quotidian tasks to pay them any heed. Having a child of their own is seen a chance to overcome stifling boredom and to break with their parents’ drab lives. As Muriel Coulin put it at Lincoln Center, it’s a way to show that “for once, something beautiful happened here” in the depressed and depressing town where they live.
That “beautiful” reveals a lot about the French duo’s romantic take on the situation. The characters in 17 Filles talk about bringing up their babies together and sharing tasks like babysitting. But this may have less to do with a Virgin Suicides-style teenage girl dreaminess than France’s social welfare system, which makes a world of difference. According to Coulin, in France a teenage mother is eligible for more than 550 euros per month in welfare benefits during pregnancy, and around 750 euros per month once the baby is born, so the plan to pool resources and rent a house together is theoretically feasible. And, needless to say, the cost of doctor visits and childbirth are covered by the French national health care system. In Gloucester, Mass., medical expenses and childcare needs would cement a teenage mother’s reliance on her family rather than establishing her independence.
The story of 17 Filles may be “inspired by” events that happened in Gloucester, but our disparate systems mean that the lives of teenage girls in the two seaside towns are profoundly different. The biggest deviation from the real story is that the fictional characters in 17 Filles are confident, intelligent, and close. The Coulins cast unusually attractive, uniformly skinny actresses, who do not necessarily reflect the real Gloucester teens. It’s easy to see why the other girls would want to mimic Camille, the film’s alpha mom-to-be—she’s the sort of cool young woman who does everything beautifully; showing her smoking a cigarette would sell a million Marlboros.
But in some ways the French take may be no more blind to the realities of the Gloucester teens than the American media’s was. The brilliant documentary The Gloucester 18, directed by John Michael Williams and produced by Williams and Kristen Grieco Elworthy, includes interviews with several of the high-schoolers who became pregnant, as well as the school’s medical staff, and it presents pretty conclusive evidence that there was no pact. The girls flatly deny having made any kind of agreement, and besides, the pregnant teens didn’t socialize together. The pregnancies were spaced throughout the year, and according to the school doctor, at least one-third of the 18 chose to terminate.
By seizing on the idea of a conspiracy, the press coverage largely ignored important questions about sex education and teenagers’ access to birth control. (The doctor and the school clinic nurse-practitioner both resigned in 2008 because of disagreements about the school’s contraception policy.) Of course, dramatically speaking, the absence of an actual pact presents a significant problem. If there is no pact, it’s harder to attract attention: The documentary has had a much lower profile than either of the feature films—it was the opening film of the Cape Ann Film Festival, held in Gloucester, Mass., while 17 Filles premiered in the Cannes Festival’s Critics Week before it came to Lincoln Center.
Many of the young women interviewed in The Gloucester 18 were lonely, troubled, and insecure. Like the girls profiled in the New York Times Magazine who suddenly started twitching—18 of them, oddly enough, at LeRoy High School in upstate New York—their lives were full of unremarkable stresses: sick parents, strained family relations, financial problems. Some of the Gloucester high-schoolers got pregnant because their ideas about birth control were sketchy or just plain wrong, but if they had a motivation, subconscious or otherwise, it was that they wanted to be noticed and to have someone to love and be loved by. Their pregnancies weren’t part of a conspiracy that shocked the world; instead, they were depressingly commonplace.