Vacation in Malia on the Greek island of Crete, a British tourist hub that might as well be hedonism incarnate, doesn’t end well for the three teen girls who travel there on holiday break in Molly Manning Walker’s directorial debut How To Have Sex. The title, however, is much more provocative than the considerable, grave, and yet conventional story that subsequently plays out. Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is so obnoxiously grating, incredibly loud, and undeniably attractive that she comes to be known as the “fun one,” as one of the boys calls her in an effort to manipulate. She’s teased for her lack of sexual experiences by the bullyish Skye (Lara Peake), though the two always appear to remain on good terms.. Em (Enva Lewis), meanwhile, is the quiet, more considerate friend, and she also always happens to get sick on vacation (which, as a side note, makes her the most relatable to this writer who, as these lines are written, is sick on “holiday” in Tallinn, Estonia to cover the Black Nights Film Festival where How to Have Sex is currently playing).
While on vacation, the three high school girls engage in a friendly competition to have the most sex, and Tara specifically has her eyes on Badger (Shaun Thomas). That is, she does until Badger volunteers for some vulgar sex game on the beach, and up until this point the film’s rambunctious energy nearly overwhelms. After this, however, the holiday is spoiled for Tara, and the film’s early vivacity dissipates into a more intense narrative about consent and the lack of it. In fact, as the film develops, its very title becomes troubling, given how little consensual sex there actually is, especially when it comes to main character Tara. If the film’s title and early energy are a plot to “get to” the sort of person that most needs to see this — i.e. the fraternity-for-life type crowd — then perhaps its strategy is successful by that metric. But beyond that, How to Have Sex is needlessly provocative, and often even straddingly the line of outright offensive.
Just look at the devious and deflectional Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), a friend of Badger, who touts a forced “yes” and treats it like a perpetual consent. Such a character might be odious, but there’s no denying that Walker gets the best out of all of the actors, and it should surprise no one if a number of the young talents here break into the mainstream in the very near future — Bottomley is especially, imbuing Paddy with the same sort of disgustingness that Will Poulter has perfected in his unlikable characters. But none of the inequity on display here is ever coherently reconciled, and the film’s ending is particularly frustrating in this regard. Tara and Em bond in a moment of pain for what the former has endured, before Tara eventually lets out a cathartic scream and runs toward the camera, the implication being that she has been healed to some degree by her friend’s empathy. But this comes just moments after Em tells Tara, “You should have said something,” as the end credits play a song with lyrics along the lines of “you don’t have to do this alone.” This final sequence forces the viewer to interpret Em as having “been there” for Tara rather than tacitly blaming her for her own rape, a victim-blamer the film paints with a human face.
DIRECTOR: Molly Manning Walker; CAST: Mia McKenna-Bruce, Samuel Bottomley, Lara Peake, Shaun Thomas; DISTRIBUTOR: MUBI; IN THEATERS: February 2; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 38 min.