How to Have Sex

Em (Enva Lewis) is thrilled she’s gotten her two besties Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and Skye (Lara Peake) to go off on a Greek vacation together.  They’ve barely hit the beach on Crete when teenaged Tara gets a text from her mum back in England who has no idea that her daughter plans on finding out “How to Have Sex.”

Laura's Review: B+

“Scrapper” cinematographer Molly Manning Walker makes her feature writing and directing debut inspired by something she witnessed in similar circumstances as her three protagonists, an actual blow job being given on stage in a bar while she was on the British equivalent of American Spring Break as a teenager.  It is recreated here as the climax (poor taste pun intended) of a series of drunken resort competitions and is but one jaw dropping moment in this honest look at the irresponsible debauchery encouraged by youthful peer pressure and the array of interpretations of what sexual consent means.  Newcomer Mia McKenna-Bruce makes a splash as the lamb too naively willing for the slaughter, supported by a well cast ensemble of young actors.

The three teens we meet may range in sexual experience, but not in brashness, as we can see when Em snows the hotel receptionist into giving them a room with a pool view.  Their wardrobe (George Buxton's costume design is essential here, Tara's angel necklace a nice, if obvious touch) consists of tight, stretchy neon leaving little to the imagination and their conversation is largely about getting laid.  As the trio’s lone virgin, Tara is as anxious to shed that status as she is about anyone finding out.

After their first night in Malia ends up as a drunken girls’ outing, the trio who’ve agreed to cede the private bedroom to the one who’s ‘getting laid the most,’ decide they need to mingle more if they are going to step up their game.  And Tara proves to be the lightning rod, when, wandering out onto their balcony she draws the attention of a cute blonde guy on the balcony next door.  ‘Oi,’ whistles Badger (Shaun Thomas), ‘smoke show,’ and the girls are invited over for ‘pre’s.’  Drinking games ensue, Badger seemingly laying claim to Tara, with Skye finding Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) fit and Em wondering about their third roomie, Paige’s (Laura Ambler), sexuality.  Skye seems intent on embarrassing Tara, throwing ‘Never have I ever had sex’ out as her game gambit, one of the guys replying ‘Come on, we’re not twelve.’  Fueled with alcohol, they all join the partying throngs below.

Watching these booze-soaked revelries with the distance of years, it is difficult to see how they would be considered fun (drink until you vomit then have sex you won't remember), but Walker finds some caring moments here and there.  When Badger overdoes it, Tara will take care of him, telling silly jokes as he retches in a toilet.  And it will be Badger who will be the only real voice of concern when, after the next night, Tara is nowhere to be found in the morning.  Cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni frames a walk of shame like a classic Western, Tara walking down the middle of a deserted main street, the previous night’s trash scattered in the gutters.  Walker will utilize flashback to inform us what happened in bursts of close-up and while it is more sad than violent even as it evokes Natalee Holloway, what follows once she’s back is an even more disturbing exhibition of ownership never granted.  And then one more communiqué from home paints a depressing picture of Tara’s probable future.

McKenna-Bruce is the anchor here and the actress puts on a front of wildness in groups while solo shots reveal a more contemplative nature.  Peake is a provocateur, the most uncaring of the three while Lewis appears the most mature and the only to (finally) recognize Tara’s emotional pain.  Thomas and Bottomley may initially seem two sides of the same coin, but their behavior indicates otherwise, while Ambler makes little impression.

“How to Have Sex” never feels embellished while showcasing unbound hedonism.   Walker’s film targets just the right audience and in illustrating reality without preaching, could be a valuable instructional for those willing to take it to heart.

Robin's Review: B

Mubi opens "How to Have Sex" in select theaters on 2/2/24, expanding on 2/9/24.