When teen pregnancies spiked at Massachusetts’ Gloucester High in 2008—18 expecting girls under the age of 17, four times the previous year’s numbers—adults demanded an explanation. Deficient sex education in this depressed fishing town? Poor contraceptive access among its heavily Catholic citizens? Juno? Then, the school’s principal announced to Time that the girls had colluded to conceive, deliver, and raise their children together on purpose—a “pregnancy pact.” One of the girls, he said, even pursued a “24-year-old homeless guy” to help her join the club.
The pact slipped easily into the lowest narratives around teen mothers in America—that they are irresponsible, low class, physically grotesque, incapable of making choices about their own bodies, and that for engaging in unprotected premarital sex, they are ultimately to blame. The fact that the pact was probably false—the pregnant girls and the town mayor later denied the story—did not stop American television producers from ripping it from the headlines. The incident inspired episodes of Bones and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; generated a Lifetime television movie, “The Pregnancy Pact,” in which intrepid journalist Mena Suvari is dispatched to the high school to get to the bottom of the disturbing trend; and spawned an industry around the popular surveillance of the nation’s high-school mothers through shows like MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom.
Now, a couple of French filmmakers have endeavored to elevate the subject above after-school special. With the new film 17 Girls, which opens later this month, sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin pluck the pact out of its tabloid context and plug it into French art-house fantasy. Trapped and bored in her depressed seaside town, one girl decides that a condom mishap is the key to reclaiming her life from those who seek to control it—teachers, doctors, parents, boys. Sixteen more girls agree. Together, they transform teen pregnancy into a radical escape from the competing post-pubescent pressures on the bodies of women—first, pregnancy is the worst thing that could ever happen to a girl, then all of a sudden it is supposed to be the best thing that a woman can ever do. These girls refuse to wait until graduation to flip the switch from virgin to matriarch. Instead, they race to be ingénue mothers, at once sexual, nurturing, reckless, autonomous, selfish, brave, and totally out of it, exploring the thrilling and dangerous possibilities of their bodies with the sexual abandon usually reserved for their male peers. “My body’s growing up and out at the same time,” one girl says, months into the experiment. “It’s wild.”
Sixteen is “an age when you are both too big and too little,” the Coulins wrote in press materials for the film. “An age when you have wonderful dreams, but you are still too young to do anything about them; and when you become an adult, when you should finally be able to make these dreams come true, you are often obliged to leave them behind, one after the other.” The film grants them nine months to suspend this reality.
In 17 Girls, morning sickness does not exist. Their willowy bodies sprout big, distended bellies, but otherwise remain unchanged. They drink, smoke, wrestle, get high, pregnant belly-flop into swimming pools, and extend their heaving torsos out the windows of racing cars without worry. At one point, they run around on the beach at night, punting a flaming soccer ball in the air between them. Save for the occasional hash-fueled beach make out, they keep their baby daddies at bay, instead spending their time laying in piles on the floor together, tracing smiley faces in permanent marker around their popped belly buttons. They promise to raise their children together in a utopian commune, the thin 16-year age gap between mother and child obscuring the alienation they feel with their own parents.
Of course, these girls cannot occupy this liminal pregnant state forever. As they inch closer to their due dates, practical realities sneak in, and their lives begin to look more and more like those sad stories we have heard before. Still, at a time when a woman’s reasoning for choosing an abortion is a matter of political debate and MTV cameras track a pregnant teen’s every move, 17 Girls imagines a rare, private world where these girls are granted space outside of the structures of male desire, parental control, and public shaming. In the film, one of the 17 flips on the television to a local news report about the teen baby boom. A male journalist begins to explain how the depressed conditions of the town could have led 17 girls to collectively conceive. She shuts off the television and sits alone with her thoughts.