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Bad Company
Bambi among the testosterone-crazed predators
Delphine's new boyfriend is Bad News

There's a moment about one-third into "Bad Company" when a boy is leading a girl along the rim of a fountain. It's winter, the stones are slippery, and the teenagers are drunk. The camera stays on them as they slowly make their way around the fountain, and you brace yourself for the fall. But the fall never comes, and you realize you've been had.

In Jean-Pierre Ameris' teenage drama "Bad Company," the sickening feeling that comes from watching the heroine, Delphine (Maud Forget), teeter at the edge of a gaping maw is the defining mood: from the opening shots of the intimidating bustle of first day of school, you know that the exquisitely pretty girl, short, pale, sensitive, and trusting, is in for serious trouble.

 
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The movie loses no time in introducing Delphine to Olivia (Lou Doillon), the new girl in class, a kind of gallic Ani DiFranco, a righteous babe with a pissed-off attitude, a history of spurned boyfriends and a serious hairdo. Delphine develops a dreamy crush on Olivia, and soon the two are listening to shoplifted Nirvana tapes together.

As the doe-eyed 14-year-old, Maud Forget gives a heartbreaking performance. Her palpable insecurity when Olivia first takes her to a disco makes her look like Bambi among the testosterone-crazed predators. You know right then which direction this movie is going to take; you just don't know how far it's going to go.

Soon, Delphine trades in her film-geek admirer and good relations with her upper middle class parents for a bunch of new friends: Olivia, her lover, and a boy named Laurent, an untrustworthy loser with dreams of getting away to Jamaica, "Bob Marley's country."

I must admit that I violently resisted the last half of "Bad Company." As the press release proudly announces, the film is "not for the squeamish," and I am not among those who find pleasure in watching people make grave mistakes for an hour and a half. Let's just say that Delphine's story takes a turn that makes "Breaking the Waves" seem like a picnic on the beach: or better yet, it's Harmony Korine's teenage remake of Von Trier's film. For a while, it seemed like "Bad Company" tried to achieve for teenage sex what "Reefer Madness" failed to do for marijuana. Parents beware! The horror, the horror!

Like Delphine on the rim of the fountain, "Bad Company" risks slipping into into camp, voyeuristic exercise, and melodrama. But careful characterizations, especially of the various parent figures who hover on the fringes of the story, keep it from tripping.

In the end, Delphine's story is one of love abused by greed, with the intensity turned up all the way, played out by teenage versions of timeless characters that could come straight out of Shakespeare. "Bad Company" hits you in the gut, but it comes by its punch honestly. When the pain subsides, there's still some hope left. Sure, stories of the selfish exploitation of kindness are everywhere (one look at the newspaper is enough), but few of them are as well observed and courageously told as this one.

"Bad Company" is playing at Film Forum in New York from February 7-20, 2001.

Directed by Jean-Pierre Ameris. Screenplay, Alain Layrac, Ameris. Cast: Maud Forget, Lou Doillon, Robinson Stevenin, Maxime Mansion. Original title: Mauvaises frequentations. Running time: 95 min.

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