It’s a rite of passage of sorts to go on a hedonistic holiday with your friends as you’re awkwardly trying to bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood. Of course, not everyone can afford this experience, and there are plenty of people who see no purpose in getting absolutely wasted for a whole week in a beachy locale. For those who are called to this experience, however, the post-high school holiday is often what gets them through school. There’s a blowout bash for them and their friends to look forward to. How to Have Sex drops viewers into the ethereal, freeing, and unsettling trip of a lifetime.
Equal parts joyful and difficult to watch, How to Have Sex introduces the audience to Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis). They’re sixteen-year-old best friends who travel to the party town of Malia after completing their exams. Malia is on the Greek island of Crete and is inundated with fellow young British citizens who are looking to drink, party, and hook up. Tara is the only member of the trio who hasn’t had sex, but Em and Skye vow to help her meet someone cute on this trip. It turns out that someone is much easier to find than they’d imagined. In the hotel room next door are Badger (Shaun Thomas), Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), and Paige (Laura Ambler). The two groups begin to spend all their time together, but tensions rise as feelings grow.
The first half of How to Have Sex is pure, joyful exuberance. Writer/director Molly Manning Walker relishes in this messy time of a young person’s life. When best friends can be emotional rocks and sworn enemies. When the possibilities of the future are expansive, yet utterly claustrophobic. The life of a sixteen-year-old is fully composed of contradictions. It’s messy, ugly, and so full of adventure. The early part of the film lives in the friendship of the three girls as they try to make the most of their trip before they have to begin the rest of their lives. They cry on street corners while eating french fries, hold each other’s hair as they throw up, and pass out together before doing it all again. It’s not what one might call glamorous. Those of us who have left these days behind will feel their liver ache while watching, but a warm nostalgia exists for this simple, strange time.
The second half of How to Have Sex is nowhere near as warm or nostalgic. Over the course of the trip, Tara is pressured into having sex with one of the boys in the neighboring hotel room. Suddenly, there’s a darkness over Tara, one that she can’t seem to articulate, even to her closest friends. It only grows as she spends time around the guy who raped her and who tries to force her into sex on another occasion. There’s a multitude of reasons why people don’t speak out after having been assaulted. They’re worried about being judged or blamed or not believed. Not just by the general public, but by their friends as well. When Tara finally does say something, it’s only to one of her friends. How to Have Sex perfectly showcases the way teenage friendships can be self-serving while masquerading as supportive. Throughout all of these events, Tara learns about how strangers are capable of extending kindness to her without expecting anything in return.
How to Have Sex is a masterful debut from Walker that is grounded by an earnestly heartbreaking turn from McKenna-Bruce. Despite taking place on the beautiful, lush island of Crete, the film is so deeply claustrophobic that it is unbearable at times. Maybe that feeling of struggling to breathe comes from being older than Tara and desperately wishing to be able to impart some knowledge or some sense of hope to her. To let her know that exam scores are not the beginning or the end of it all. That life exists outside of sex, school, and clubs. That real friends should be held onto for as long as possible. How to Have Sex exudes the youthful teenage cocktail of being overly confident and also cripplingly insecure. There is not one without the other when you’re sixteen.
Walker has created a film that speaks to adolescence in a way that’s genuine. The movie conveys the raucous sense of joy, heartache, and vulnerability that comes with connecting to other human beings. How to Have Sex is teenage insecurity in all of its manifestations. It is a brutal, magnificent work about the things we don’t talk enough about, and how that silence affects all of us.