Most American teen sex dramas serve a singular — one could say puritan — purpose, to make parents terrified for their children’s mortal souls. These films generally go one of two routes: they’re bleak like Kids, making adolescence seem an unstoppable destructive force, or, like Crazy/Beautiful, they offer a way out of such unholy chaos through love, both parental and romantic.
With Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (Bang Gang [une histoire d’amour moderne]), French filmmaker Eva Husson offers another possibility. Ostensibly about teen orgies and wanton hedonism, her movie does not present shocking scandal and parental meltdowns, but instead, reveals how sex and desire can lead to children’s evolving wisdom and genuine mutual affection. It might sound radical for Americans used to seeing youthful sex as a frame for trauma, but in other cultures, it’s more like just one stage of life.
The film, which makes its North American premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, follows a handful of well-to-do kids living in a French suburb not far from the ocean. Laetitia (Daisy Broom) first appears to be the most hallowed of teen movie tropes, the honorable virgin. She lives with her single father in a modest house, remains mindful of his rules, avoiding drugs and alcohol.
Of course, this can’t last: led by her best friend, the radiantly pretty Georges (Marilyn Lima), Laetitia meets some local boys, including Alex (Finnegan Oldfield), and his best friend, Nikita (Fred Hotier). Living alone on an estate while his mom works at a Moroccan archeology site, Alex begins hosting raucous parties that morph into full-on bacchanalias, with teens engaging in sex in full view of other guests. Everyone uses their cell phones to record everyone else and post the videos to a dedicated porn site devised by Alex and Niki.
Soon enough, innocent Laetitia is caught up in the flurry, sleeping with Alex, on whom Georges has a crush. Her sense of betrayal takes a malevolent turn after someone posts a video to YouTube showing Georges drugged out of her mind and declaring her desire to bring “warmth and joy” to as many boys as possible in a single evening.
Such dissipation eventually leads to a VD scare at school. This in turn finally alerts parents of the scandalous behavior of their children. In another version of the film, this would be the occasion for a moral lesson, with kids learning the dire cost of their iniquity. But here a curious thing happens on the way to the pulpit of sanctimony. Rather than the parents raining outrage upon their children’s heads, many of them shrug their shoulders and let the kids sort it out for themselves. One father is concerned less about the sex acts than that his son’s hedonism is “profoundly mediocre”. After all, dad reasons, the kids might have been making a difference in the world, instead.
As the apparently wanton Georges ends up ostracized by her former friends, she also falls deeply in love with Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefebvre), a sweet-faced, beat-style kid with floppy hair and more reserved disposition than the others. In shocking disregard of movie conventions, our debauched virgin is no longer at the center of Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story), while Georges becomes the focus of the romance. The film draws our attention to that same moment in time that most teen sex dramas do, when adolescents come to see the full power of their erotic imaginations before being able to channel it, b ut here, that base recklessness is less a deviance deserving of punishment than it is a step in growing up.
It’s unlikely that none of these kids could be seen as spiritually enlightened at film’s start, particularly Alex, the snide, thoughtless cad whose house serves as ground zero for the teens’ sexual escapades. When last we see Alex, however, he’s made the choice to reunite with his mother in Morocco. Smiling beatifically in the warm, orange sunlight, his face displays none of the callous self-regard we’ve observed in the beginning. For Alex and the others, his bad behavior has granted a better sense of their own boundlessness.