Less an instructional film than a drunken after-school special about a girls’ trip gone wrong, Molly Manning Walker’s “How to Have Sex” packs a nuanced look at the pressures and permissiveness of teenage friendships within a frustratingly didactic story about the vagaries of consent . Needless to say, this isn’t the movie Walker’s three 16-year-old heroines hoped they’d be in when they arrived on the Greek island of Malia for the kind of boot-and-rally bacchanalia that British kids have turned into a rite of passage. . They signed up for ‘Spring Breakers’, only to find themselves stuck in something closer to a ‘Skins’ episode.
It’s not their fault. Best friends Tara, Em and Skye have no way of knowing they’ve fallen into a trap. They can’t hear the muffled soundscape Walker creates for them when they arrive at their first beach; can’t they see that cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni is shooting them with a detached removal that portends social horror even more clearly than sexual hedonism promises (it should be noted that first-time director Walker is a talented DP herself, having recently filmed the Sundance highlight “Scrapper”).
“Best! Vacation! Ever!” the girls sing to each other on the taxi ride from the airport, unaware of the dangers of deciding ahead of time. They’ve also predetermined that Tara – the trio’s last remaining virgin – will “have sex” when they get home, which proves to be another tough case of putting the cart before the horse (it’s telling that these ultra-modern Zoomers suddenly talk like the guys from “American Pie” whenever the topic turns to sex).
Tara seems to agree with the plan, and it’s not like it’s hard to find a willing partner for a feisty blonde with high cheekbones and a low-cut neon top. After all, the girls’ hotel pool is shaped like a giant penis, and the stench of Ax body spray rises from the water’s surface like mist on a lake at dawn. Half of London’s teenagers have gone on holiday awaiting the results of the GCSE exams which will determine the course of their adult lives, and you probably couldn’t toss a bottle of Smirnoff Ice without hitting some cuckold cuckold who would be happy to assist Tara as she decides her next unfortunate neck tattoo. Alas, there’s no guarantee that any of Tara’s potential suitors know how have better sex than her. Chances are they don’t even care, not when so many of these kids have been socialized to think of sex as a consecration of their self-worth.
“How to Have Sex” is at its best during its bass-heavy first half, when Walker’s attention is focused on the nuances of Tara’s friendship with Skye and Em. Played by the excellent Mia McKenna Bruce, Tara is a uncharacteristically nuanced protagonist for such a morally straightforward film. Intelligent but academically challenged, Tara is brash and headstrong in a way that belies her relative innocence, as well as her private fear that her GCSE results will take her down a very different path to her best friends. The pressure Tara feels to join the club and have sex is even more intense now that she feels that even the slightest rift between her and her friends could tear them apart forever, and it doesn’t help that Tara – like so many people she meets in Malia – seems in private convinced that everyone else is having more fun than her.
Maybe if he drinks another blue drink the size of a bathtub, everything will fall into place. Maybe if he finally fucks he’ll be able to put it off actual loss of innocence: the overwhelming realization that his life may not live up to the dreams he once had for it.
The other two members of the clique are either too cynical or not cynical enough. Em (Enva Lewis) is a disappointing undersigned sweetheart who is too busy kissing her lesbian crush to notice Tara going through It, while Skye (Lara Peake) is an insecure bully whose appetite for fried cigarettes is matched only by her need to beat Tara at every opportunity. She’s the kind of girl who seems only interested in fucking the guys her friends like, so when Tara gets along with the bleach-blonde Mancurian in the next room, it’s only a matter of time before Skye tells him coincidentally that Tara has never had sex before.
His name is Badger, he’s played by Stuart Thomas, and he basically looks like what could happen if Ben Platt made 300 bad decisions in a row. However, Badger’s good-hearted nature is blatantly evident from the moment he appears on screen; likewise, all the booze in the world can’t hide the fact that his best friend Paddy (Barry Keoghan looks like Samuel Bottomley) is an absolute “boy’s nightmare.”
By themselves, these characters are remarkably one-dimensional for a film so attuned to the gray areas of sexual assault, and they soon come to embody how the film around them fails to support Tara’s struggle with the drama it deserves. . But there’s something painful and true about Badger’s attachment to Paddy despite it all, just as it makes sense that Tara would still be afraid to part with someone as catty as Skye: At that age, friends aren’t people you like as much. as the entire context of your social existence, and losing them can feel like losing a part of yourself.
A semi-effective reminder that consent isn’t necessarily the end of the conversation, Walker’s film is far more powerful as a portrayal of the things people allow themselves (and their friends) in the interest of self-preservation. Even during the awkward moments of its over-the-top third act, “How to Have Sex” never loses sight of what these characters are willing to overlook, or why. And after alternating between different modes of cringe cinema for most of its first 90 minutes (can you get booze poisoning secondhand?), Walker’s debut ends on a woefully aching note that makes the whole thing seem she is about more than the sum of her parts, as Tara finally sees herself with a clarity she can keep forever – a treasured souvenir saved from a vacation she can never forget.
“How to Have Sex” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. MUBI will release it in the United States later this year.