Film Review: How to Have Sex (2023)

How to Have Sex is an arresting directorial debut from Molly Manning Walker,

“No one cares if you’re a virgin, it’s very chill.
‘So why are you bringing it up then?'”

The post exam blowout has long been a cinematic trope, but most vividly – in recent decades at least – through the eyes of the teenage American male. How to Have Sex reframes that entirely as it follows a group of three 16-year-old women in Crete marking the end of their GCSEs in a haze of pool parties, industrial vat-sized cocktails and the promise of so much sun-tanned sex.

It is a gorgeously assured first feature film from director Molly Manning Walker that focuses such a contemporary eye on its subjects, probing at how peer pressure sits alongside responsibility, how sex has so thoroughly permeated our culture without bringing the necessary understanding with it, how consent and coercion can merge into murky grey where there ought to be black and white.

Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Louis) are living it up in Malia and flirting heavily with the apartment next door, whether the goofy Badger (Shaun Thomas) or the cooler Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). Tara is the least sexually experienced of the trio, as Skye keeps sniggeringly reminding her, but as the two groups of pals join up for some chaotic fun, connections become increasingly complicated.

A real sense of authenticity percolates through the film, not just in the freshness of the dialogue but also in what is left unsaid. McKenna-Bruce is superb at letting her face say what her voice dare not, or perhaps doesn’t even know how to, as her disbelief at the way everything unravels for her threatens to overwhelm her entirely. It’s deeply affecting in its own subtle way, Bottomley and Thomas both excellent as the flipsides of horny teenage boys. Far superior to so much Oscar bait that’s around right now.

The awkward stage of being 16, sexually inexperienced, and eager to conform to those around you, is perfectly represented here. Tara and her friends are seen having so much fun, and the first 30 minutes feel like a classic Inbetweeners-style romp. But sexual perturbation begins to sneak up on Tara with the introduction of Badger (Shaun Thomas). A lovable and endearing character with a rebellious streak and a penchant for heavy drinking. He is also on holiday with friends, and the two groups intertwine in what starts as a conjoined friendship group of fun and chaos. The introduction of Badgers holiday accompaniment Paddy, played by Ackley Bridge star Samuel Bottomley, quickly introduces a dark undertone.

The film descends into a dark mystery drama, questioning consent within the relationships formed on these holidays filled with parties, booze, and drugs. Tara and Badger’s groups collide and form what feels like at first an authentic friendship group, but the film questions this as cracks start to form between drunken antics and sexual experiences. How To Have Sex is a masterful exploration of these dark and sensitive questions around the teenage experience that have never been posed in film to this extent before. Mia Mckenna, known previously for her Dumping Ground role, executes every scene in a mature yet appropriate and realistically juvenile manner, cementing her as a powerful player and rising star in UK film.

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