Welcome to every parent’s worst nightmare. A fully erect middle finger to the idea of abstinence-only education, Eva Husson’s “Bang Gang: A Love Story” is the opposite of a cautionary tale — it’s a salaciously soft-core movie about the upside of indiscriminate teen sex. Opening with a permissive Carl Jung quote that speaks to the trajectory of self-improvement (“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”), Husson’s directorial debut is too derivative of forebears like “Kids” and “The Rules of Attraction” to earn a spot alongside them, but it nevertheless moves along on the strength of its slyly transgressive undertow.
Here is a rare new entry in that smallest of sub-genres: Movies that don’t punish teens for fucking their brains out (surprise surprise: it’s French). Which isn’t to say that the kids get off without any consequences, but rather that their libidos don’t sentence them to an after-school special. Kids, if you value the freedom to make your own mistakes, do everything in your power to prevent your parents from seeing this film.
“Bang Gang” (more on that title later) begins with a flash-forward that’s hard to shake, the camera tracking through an airy house in the affluent coastal city of Biarritz as dozens of naked teenagers hump each other in all manner of positions; the scene is like the orgy sequence from “Eyes Wide Shut” as it might have been shot by Terry Richardson.
But Husson doesn’t let you gawp at all the lithe young bodies for long, as the film soon begins to feel the weight of some unknown heaviness. “It was the year no one could forget,” an anonymous voiceover solemnly intones, genuflecting on some past trauma with the same wistful sense of wisdom with which Leonardo DiCaprio remembered his time on a remote Thai beach.
Not that it matters much, but we’ll later learn that the voice belongs to Alex (the English-born Finnegan Oldfield), a lanky high school senior whose only discernible quality is a general disregard for other people’s feelings. He and his clownish best friend Nikita (Fred Hotier, one of the film’s numerous first-time actors) can often be found smoking a blunt somewhere and streaming videos of porn star Sasha Grey in action. These two boys own several of the opening scenes, but Husson’s attention seems anchored to the first girls with whom we see Alex and Nikita fool around: Laetitia (Daisy Broom) is a virginal brunette with a strict father. George (potential breakout star Marilyn Lima) is a compact blonde who looks like an Olsen twin by way of Vanessa Paradis.
Their roles seem codified by the color of their hair, especially when George and Alex have sex while their two comparatively demure friends watch from the sidelines, but Husson is itching to test your assumptions, and the dynamic between these characters is soon twisted beyond recognition with the introduction of a shy, curly-haired fifth wheel named Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefebvre).
Betrayal! Anger! Jealousy! All of it shot with the dreamy poeticism of Andrea Arnold and glazed with a blissed-out electronic score by M83 collaborator White Sea. Alex doesn’t care about George — she’s a conquest, and he disposes of her as soon as she’s reaffirmed his self-worth. But George has an idea to ease her pain, an inclusive plan for all their friends that will allow her to view people as interchangeably as Alex does: She calls them “bang gangs,” but they’re basically orgies. Games of truth or dare in which “truth” isn’t an option. These kids are ready to maul each other to begin with, but sprinkle in some throbbing house music and a flurry of cocaine and you’re off to the races.
Each of these characters threaten to make this their movie at some point, and while that lack of focus prevents them from achieving even the slightest whiff of depth, it also endows Husson’s story with the mutability of teenage friendships, which tend to shift with the tides. To some extent, these kids become as interchangeable to us as they are to each other. As the film’s latter half descends into an overlong blur of bang gangs, the anonymity of all that sex increasingly begins to seem like the point, as George and her friends eagerly reduce their bodies to dildos and vessels because they all just want to feel wanted, no matter the cost.
You’ve never seen a high school movie with such a conspicuous absence of body shaming, as these horny teens give each other a satisfaction that they can’t give themselves. “We all have superpowers,” George declares to the camera before getting railed by a half-dozen dudes off-screen (Husson only shows enough of the action to make viewers believe in what’s happening behind closed doors, and her camera ogles the male cast members almost as much as it does the girls). But maybe they shouldn’t be quite so eager to record the sexcapades on their phones — welcome to the age of Chekhov’s YouTube video.
Storm clouds are clearly forming on the horizon from the start, as Husson repeatedly interlaces scenes with radio reports of a gruesome train derailment. It’s a clumsy attempt at illustrating the myopia of her characters, and one that doesn’t work without the sociopolitical heft that “A Bigger Splash” recently used to anchor the same technique. These boys and girls are clearly sticking their heads into the ground (or whatever holes they can find), but their broad tunnel-vision is spread too thin to maintain much of its taste. “Bang Gang” may have a bit more sizzle than Mia Hansen-Løve’s similarly themed “Goodbye, First Love,” but it desperately misses that film’s wonderful sensitivity.
But Husson, to her credit, does succeed in “making the darkness conscious” for these thirsty young fuck buddies. Their story is so whitewashed that it flirts with irresponsibility — there’s no violence, and any STDs contracted can be cured with a pill.
At one point, a girl refers to the simplicity of her abortion as “a modern day fairytale,” and the same description could be applied to the whole film. But if “Bang Gang” climaxes a bit too cleanly, its moral rings true all the same: Kids have to be kids before they can become adults.
“Bang Gang: A Love Story” opens in theaters on Friday.