It is, of course, a time-honored tradition of French cinema to feature nude, nubile young bodies in the name of oh-la-la sensationalism (see Bardot, Brigitte). So let’s say it’s not entirely surprising that, within the first 30 seconds of writer-director Eva Husson’s drama about high school sex parties in Southern France, you will see a butt-naked young woman sprint out of a suburban house. Inside that home, things are hitting maximum steaminess: females make out with each other for a crowd of horny onlookers, teens film other teens fucking each other, au naturel adolescents spin bottles and cross boundaries. Bodies gyrate and grind in every corner of the screen. Before a “Two Months Earlier” title card jarringly signals a narrative rewind, you might forget you’re watching “A Modern Love Story” — ironic subtitle, anybody? — and think you’ve stumbled into a revival screening of Caligula.
Our tour guides to this world are Laetitia (Daisy Bloom) and George (Marilyn Lima), two friends who occupy complementary good girl/bad girl archetypes: The latter is bottle-blond and boy-crazy, apt to invite herself over to a hot classmate’s house, and her mousy friend is more likely to blush when that classmate’s buddy drops trou and literally swings his dick around. George is the first one to succumb to the sleazy charms of Alex (Thomas Finnegan), a local Lothario whose mom is in Morocco for the next month or so. (Parents are either angry cranks or absent altogether.) Later, after he’s grown bored with his conquest, the teen then turns his attention to Laetitia, buttering her up with such choice pickup lines as “You remind me of an actress from the 1980s, I forget her name.” Jealousy causes George to turn a house party into an afterschool orgy, which signals the beginning of what the kids start calling the “Bang Gang.” Cue more barely-legal group sex than a vintage Abercrombie & Fitch ad.
You know that consequences, regrets and a mysterious school-wide epidemic of syphilis are just around the corner, and there’s a strong “parents, do you know where your enfants are?!” vibe to the sexed-up sixteen-and-under shenanigans. But Bang Gang is ultimately less interested in simply regurgitating torn-from-the-headlines handwringing than tentatively exploring how her two heroines are affected by the hedonistic free-for-all environment they find themselves in. The shy Laetitia seems to feel empowered by the debauchery while George, smitten by a neighbor/musician (Lorenzo Lefebvre) who prefers living-room moshpit parties, starts wishing she’d never opened this sex-party Pandora’s box even before a requisite YouTube shaming.
Husson clearly has sympathy for them both, and if her methods of getting into the secret lives of these complicated young women occasionally feel like borrowed Dreamy Cinema 101 — slo-mo running about, a drony pop/EDM soundtrack, naturally lit shots that go a lens flare too far — she’s still interested in these youngsters as more than just cautionary-tale symbols or fresh meat to be ogled. Folks on the festival circuit have referred to it as a Gallic version of Kids, but the comparison is more illustrative than apt. Larry Clark’s bad-behavior masterpiece was the movie equivalent of a raging dude boner; Husson’s movie is as much a hormonal mess as its characters, but at least it favors heart over hard-ons.