Michelle Latour (Anicée Alvina) is a fourteen-year-old French girl whose father has recently died, so has been sent to live with her older, married cousin since she is now an orphan. She is not happy about this arrangement, and even less so when her cousin's husband seems to be a bit of a creep, but what can she do? As if that were not bad enough, the couple have a habit of getting into blazing rows, not the most supportive of environments for her to be brought up in, so she starts wandering around the streets of Paris to amuse herself and forget about her troubles for a while. It is on these jaunts that she meets fifteen-year-old Paul Harrison (Sean Bury) who in spite of a stern, rich father (Ronald Lewis) is a real tearaway...
Friends was a surprise hit among the sentimental moviegoers of 1971, probably because it happened along at the point when audiences for twee romances focused on teenagers or children were in vogue, ushered in by the worldwide success of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet of 1968 which had cast actual teenagers as the teenage Shakespearian characters rather than older actors who may have had more experience with playing the Bard. The effect was that a new interest in youth culture was keeping hold on the box office like never before, albeit that effect having been in place since rock 'n' roll had exploded on the international scene in the fifties, but those fifties kids were growing up and making their own entertainment now.
Director Lewis Gilbert was not a fifties kid, mind you, though he did concoct the story for his romance that sought to exploit interest in young love, seemingly both for the age group it depicted (though his stars were a little older than their characters) and for an older generation who were curious to see if the younger generation were having more fun than they did at that stage in life. Ironically, because of nudity and a sexual frankness the certificate in its native UK (though it was set in France) was an X, therefore prohibitive to the teens who would be the most interested in watching it, which was odd since quite a bit of this came across as Gilbert setting out an educational film to inform kids of where babies came from and the correct way to go about a relationship.
And indeed the correct way to go about having a baby, which might have explained the banning of the junior viewer in case they got any ideas and the teenage pregnancy rates began to soar, though you would have thought the more information they had the better equipped they were to make sensible decisions; well, you would hope so. As it was, Friends looks with the benefit of hindsight like a combination of, and precedent for, two later cult movies that arrived at the other end of the decade: George Roy Hill's A Little Romance, a more comedic work, and the remake of The Blue Lagoon that was a hit with young girls of its day. Those two made box office draws of, respectively, Diane Lane and Brooke Shields, but Alvina was to enjoy more of a niche career, concentrating on music as well as acting until her untimely death.
As for Bury, stardom did not beckon, though he did hang around in the industry long enough to make a sequel to Friends simply titled Paul and Michelle which somewhat spoiled the open ending to the original by answering every lingering question. The plot of this saw the couple head off on a whim in Paul's father's stolen car, which he promptly crashes into a pond, but that gives Michelle the idea they should stay out all night and one thing leads to another so before you know it they have set up home together in her father's isolated holiday cottage in the rolling French countryside. Then another thing leads to another thing, and they are lovers (with a losing virginity scene oddly careful to include premature ejaculation, not that it's explicit, this wasn't porn), and then parents, a simple enough yarn and that simplicity was likely what the attraction was back in '71 when the hippy dream was waking up to a less than hopeful future. Seeing it now, it's difficult perceive the appeal for those who were not around at the time as the acting is lacking and it's terribly twee, no matter how realistic it is about certain elements. Music by Elton John, just when his star was on the rise.