Throughout cinema history, teenagers have been trying to have sex onscreen for years. Films like Superbad, Porkys, and The Todo List, look at the trope from a comedic perspective, but the genre is twisted on its head in Molly Manning Walker’s directorial debut How to Have Sex. A raw and real coming-of-age drama, the young British filmmaker looks at how societal expectations of sex and wild parties often get in the way of one’s own boundaries.
Three 16-year-old girlfriends arrive at a Greek island for a “spring break holiday” so to speak. Hundreds of teens will flock to this resort to drink, hook up, and do other debaucherous activities for a few days before returning home to sort out their futures. Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is a virgin determined to have sex for the first time and is not quite sure if she passed her A-levels (the British equivalent of the SATS). She is joined by her best friends, Em (Enva Lewis) and the jealous Skye (Lara Peake).
On their first day, they befriend the group nextdoor, including nice guy Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Badger (Shaun Thomas) with his bleached hair and plenty of tattoos. Think of a young Ryan Gosling in The Place Upon The Pines who acts like Gosling in The Notebook mixed with an everyday teenage boy. As Tara sets her eyes on him, she is pushed to hang out with Paddy by Skye which ends with them alone on the beach where unsaid boundaries are crossed.
It could be really easy for Walker’s script to feel traumatic and over the top. Instead, Tara’s inner conflict is written all over McKenna-Bruce’s expressive face, telling a story about the importance of consent but also not listening to your inner voice. While the plot isn’t anything new and the pacing is quite slow, Tara’s journey to realizing what happened to her is engaging.
I wish Em received more of a story considering she is the only person of color in the cast. Walker writes frustrating characters that lose or almost loses its audience as time goes on. But because Walker contains the plot to the moment they step off and onto the plane, How to Have Sex is concise enough to forgive most of its flaws. There’s a reason the film has become a festival darling since winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes: Walker’s direction is tight and raw and McKenna-Bruce’s performance is captivating.
How to Have Sex is playing in theaters Friday and will be released eventually on MUBI. Watch the trailer below.