The title How to Have Sex might suggest a raucous, cheeky teen sex comedy, somewhere between American Pie, The Inbetweeners and a Carry On movie. Instead, this is an achingly sensitive and honest drama about sex, booze, consent, friendship, the painful precipice of adulthood, and the secret history of one messy weekend. Written and directed by Molly Manning Walker, it’s the latest in a recent string of excellent, heartfelt directorial debuts by a new generation of British female filmmakers, including Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper, Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean, and most famously, Charlotte Wells’ gorgeous, melancholy Aftersun, which earned an Oscar nomination for All of Us Strangers co-star Paul Mescal.
Like Aftersun, How to Have Sex locates its drama in the strange, suspended reality of a cheap package vacation on the Mediterranean: a world of flimsy hotel rooms, idle beach days, noisy pool parties, and karaoke in neon-lit boozing taverns. Both films have an affectionate eye for this traditional escape for working-class Brits, while being frank about its ugly side.
But where Wells’ film is a memory piece, dreamily exploring the inner lives of an 11-year-old girl and her very young, kind, but lost dad in the late 1990s, Manning Walker is up to something much more precise and contemporary. With a patient, compassionate, but penetrating gaze, How to Have Sex maps out the dangerous, murky territory of teenage sexuality and friendships.
Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) are three 16-year-old girls, cutting loose at the low-rent party resort of Malia on the Greek island of Crete. They’re awaiting exam results, and the future looms uncomfortably: Em is expecting good news, but Tara and Skye aren’t. They’re not going to waste this summer of freedom together before reality comes crashing back in. The girls go hard, clubbing on the garish strip, drinking to extreme excess, and losing themselves in a throng of young bodies clad in tiny scraps of acid-colored clothing.
The one thing on their minds above all others is hooking up, and all three fixate on it with a brash, hungry bravado. But Tara is a virgin, which brings extra dimensions of desperation and uncertainty into the mix. It also means incessant peer pressure — mostly from Skye, the kind of semi-toxic friend who masks her own insecurity in constant teasing and jockeying for seniority. The girls fall in with a group in an adjoining suite; good-hearted party boy Badger (Shaun Thomas) and Tara hit it off, but jealously, Skye pushes Tara toward Badger’s leering friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley).
McKenna-Bruce is a revelation as Tara: Watching her in How to Have Sex is reminiscent of seeing Florence Pugh in breakout roles like Lady Macbeth, and not just because of her tiny stature, husky voice, and blazing charisma. She gives Tara a pugnacious energy and natural social command, but also the fragility and vulnerability of the child she partly still is. Her brassiness overcompensates for the fact that she still feels younger than her friends, and secretly isn’t quite as ready to abandon herself to the adult world.
The heartbreaking thing about How to Have Sex is how that world lets her down. Because it’s not an adult world, not really; it’s an adolescent illusion, a hedonistic, horny fantasy disguising a morass of insecurity, inexperience, and longing.
But what makes the movie beautiful as well as crushing is Manning Walker’s sensitivity and generosity. She’s not interested in writing off Malia’s party culture as a callous cesspool, or damning all teenage boys as predators. Just when another movie might go into finger-wagging cautionary-tale mode, Tara falls in with a group of older strangers who show her the genuinely safe, cathartic release that partying can bring. Manning Walker finds nuance everywhere: Badger is kind, but naïvely selfish. Paddy is gross, but conditioned into it by a rough upbringing steeped in toxic masculinity.
How to Have Sex has a deliberate smallness — it’s about things that sadly happen all the time, that scar young lives but don’t necessarily damage them beyond repair. But it also has a huge emotional resonance that reverberates long after the movie ends. It’s about those fleeting events that break you and make you at the same time, and it has a lot of wisdom about this tender and difficult moment in life that every horny teenager should hear, and everyone who once was one will recognize. It’s a perfect coming-of-age movie.
How to Have Sex is in theaters now.