How to Have Sex

Following three 16-year-old girls to Crete to celebrate finishing high school, this Cannes award-winning, BAFTA-nominated film is unforgettable.
Sarah Ward
Published on March 04, 2024


Movies don't have pores, but How to Have Sex might as well. Following a trip to Greece with three 16-year-old best friends who want nothing more than to party their way into womanhood — and to get laid, too — this unforgettable British drama is frequently slick with sweat. Perspiration can dampen someone when they're giddily excited about a wild getaway, finishing school and leaving adolescence behind. It can get a person glistening when they're rushing and drinking, and flitting from pools and beaches to balconies and clubs. Being flushed from being sozzled, the stickiness that comes with expending energy, the cold chill of stress and horror, the fluster of a fluttering heart upon making a connection: they're all sources of wet skin as well. Filmmaker Molly Manning Walker catalogues them all. Viewers can see the sweat in How to Have Sex, with its intimate, spirited, like-you're-there cinematography. More importantly, audiences can feel why protagonist Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, Vampire Academy) is perspiring, and the differences scene to scene, even when she's not quite sure herself.

How to Have Sex also gets those watching sweating — because spying how you've been Tara, or her pals Em (debutant Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake, Halo), or lads Badger (Shaun Thomas, Ali & Ava) and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley, The Last Rifleman) in the neighbouring resort unit, is inescapable. Walker has been there herself, with parts of her debut feature as a writer and director drawn from her own time as a Tara, Em or Skye while also making the spring break and Schoolies-like pilgrimage from England to the Mediterranean. When the movie doesn't lift details directly from her own experience, it shares them with comparable moments that are virtually ripped from western teendom. One of the feature's strokes of genius is how lived-in it proves, whether Tara and her mates are as loud and exuberant as girls are when their whole lives are ahead of them, its main character is attempting to skip her troubles in a sea of strobing lights and dancing bodies, or slipping between the sheets — but not talking about it — is changing who Tara is forever.

If a film called How to Have Sex had arrived in cinemas in the 80s, 90s or 00s, viewers would've known exactly what was in store from its title. Indeed, more than a few teen comedies of the era, American Pie especially, could've adopted the non-Google-friendly moniker. But Walker's picture isn't those flicks, despite starting with Tara and company almost dizzy with euphoria about wrapping up their exams, farewelling secondary schooling and dashing eagerly into their vision of adulthood. Rather, How to Have Sex is a portrait of the details that don't typically get seen and definitely aren't stressed when garnering laughs about coursing hormones is the aim of the game. As it unpacks consent and coercion in a real and raw way, Walker's feature is steeped in the confusion, the hurt, the quiet "yeah" that isn't a hearty yes, the peer pressure and rivalries, and the fact that sex is almost everywhere — in one based-on-reality sequence, oral sex is a basically a contest in front of a vast crowd — but any genuine and considered "how to" is far from everyone's thoughts.

In its first half, there's a woozy buzz to How to Have Sex that matches the slinky outfits, glittery faces, neon lights and constant chase for the best holiday ever. Tara, Em and Skye are in Malia, Crete, but there's no time for sightseeing when there's shots after shots to down, dance floors to cut loose on, splashes to be had, and Badger and his crew to pursue. "Oi, smokeshow" is how the bleached-blonde fellow Brit first greets Tara from across their balconies. There's a goofiness to him that pairs well with her bubbliness; her "angel necklace" and his "hot legends" neck tattoo also appear to match. But Skye doesn't approve, in the way that besties who don't always want what's best for their friends can nix someone's crush because they're thinking about themselves. After dubbing Badger a clown, she suggests with forcefulness that Tara set her sights on the supremely confident Paddy instead.

If you're not aware going into the movie that Walker is also a cinematographer, it's evident in every frame of a film that she doesn't actually shoot herself. Nicolas Canniccioni (A Respectable Woman) takes on that gig, but How to Have Sex is made with a meticulous sense of colour and light, as Walker's lensing on the also-visually expressive Scrapper similarly possessed. While the in-the-moment flavour to the imagery thrusting Tara's plight to the screen doesn't subside, the hues and the gleam reflect the delicate tonal rollercoaster her story takes. In its second half, then, all that shines, fluoresces and fizzes isn't shimmering with exhilaration. After Paddy takes her to the beach alone, and Tara drunkenly loses the virginity her mates have been just as adamant that she can't go home with, nothing looks or feels the same. How Tara regards herself, not clocking the myriad of reasons why her situation has been so many other teen girls' situation and the societal underpinnings behind that truth, also shifts shatteringly.

The before, the after, the seesaw from hedonistic bliss to gutwrenching discomfort, the sensitive lack of judgement shown to both How to Have Sex's women and men, the utter unwillingness for the feature to never stop being frank: with them all, Walker beams as brightly as a glowstick that she's an exceptionally talented, perceptive and compassionate filmmaker. At the centre of the booze and the horniness, so does McKenna-Bruce; that they've both been collecting accolades and awards attention, including Cannes' Un Certain Regard Award and BAFTA nominations for Walker, plus the British Independent Film Awards' Best Lead Performance and BAFTA Rising Star prize for her main actor, is deeply deserved. Calling this a launching pad for McKenna-Bruce isn't accurate, though, because her How to Have Sex performance should always be mentioned whenever her name comes up from now on out. Brassy, energetic, vulnerable, insecure, disoriented, regretful, dread-filled, let down by a fantasy of growing up that's never real, still picking herself back up: her stunning portrayal has it all, and she shouldn't ever want to soar away from it.

It isn't just teen-comedy antics that How to Have Sex eschews; this story would never be easy to tell or witness, and nor should it, but Walker clearly doesn't pour it into the standard dramatic template. As much as it brings them both to mind at times, her film isn't Aftersun-meets-Spring Breakers, either — two excellent pictures themselves — but it's as honest and potent, and also as intensely immersive. Charlotte Wells' tender father-daughter trip played like a haunting memory and desperate attempt to hold onto someone lost. Harmony Korine's bacchanalian crime-comedy jaunt to Florida was rendered with a dreamlike air. How to Have Sex stares unblinkingly, knowing how many women have stood in Tara's shoes, how many men in Paddy's, and how a definitive resolution where everything falls where it should is a rarity. Sweat is far from the only aspect, then, that's messily real.


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