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A feature length debut, Molly Manning Walker’s “How to Have Sex” is a blisteringly real survey of female coming of age. Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Em (Enva Lewis), and Skye (Lara Peake) are three teen best friends who go on holiday to Crete for what is meant to be the best girls’ trip summer can offer. Partaking in the rites of a romanticized wild youth—getting drunk, partying, and having sex—are the three bullet points on their itinerary. Tara in particular has the goal of losing her virginity, and the girls band together to make sure every box on their rubric for a successful vacation gets checked a million times over.
Staying in a room with an adjacent balcony is another friend group: Badger (Shaun Thomas), a goofy, gregarious ham with an oversized kiss-print neck tattoo, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), an arrogant, one-track party boy, and Paige (Laura Ambler), a mostly quiet peripheral character whom Em sets her sights on. When these two groups link, the limits of their livers are doubly put to the test, and with it, dynamics become messy at best and traumatizing at worst as jealousy, consent, and the fear of “not having fun” collide and collapse.
The visual style of “How to Have Sex” is one of the film’s most trademark features, and with Walker’s background as a cinematographer, this comes as no surprise. The neon-flushed, buoyant energy of the girls’ liquor-soaked nights are in stark contrast to the static harshness of daylight and Crete’s sand-colored facades. Boosted by the film’s empathetic editing, which thrusts the viewer into a vicarious hangover with quick cuts between these states, the differences of day and night are made almost painfully apparent.
These energies between feral nights and afternoon recoveries are not the only elements at play in “How to Have Sex.” In fact, the entirety of the film is poignantly defined by the grating volatility within female friendships, sexual desire, and where they intersect.
While the film revolves around the trio of girls, it’s Tara who becomes central. In her goal to lose her virginity, we see her teetering on the edge of making moves, but nervously withdrawing. It attests to the idea of wanting to be ready versus actually being so, and the prioritization of an end goal over an experience. It’s an ever-familiar experience of teen girlhood, a pressure applied not only by peers, but by oneself. She’s taken with Badger, but between slandering selectivity in the process of getting laid and the party hard propaganda there's a line that’s overstepped; Tara is subjected to a dangerous power play within an overwhelming “don’t spoil the fun” environment.
Mia McKenna Bruce gives a phenomenal physical performance. The nature of Walker’s script doesn’t permit a wealth of intelligible language or sound-of-mind perspectives amidst its boozy happenings, but Bruce’s Tara is always crystal clear. Her short stature and doll-like features (as well as her “Angel” necklace) in comparison to her friends’ taller forms and more chiseled features, enhance the elements of naivety and vulnerability intertextual to her character. More than her wordless emotional expressions, which climax in a fleeting but utterly powerful moment between her and Em in the airport, Bruce is also at times a firecracker. The laughter and gleeful screaming of best friends on vacation is as much a character as the propensity for high stakes engagement that occurs in drunken spaces with entitled characters, and Bruce is always leading the way.
Lara Peake is incredible as Skye as well. Even when we want to despise her for her catty tendencies and self-centeredness, Walker doles out enough empathy to make her human rather than prototypical. She’s a symbol of a different breed of girlhood insecurity, the kind that lashes out with backhanded compliments and mean “jokes” to veil jealousy. Lewis’ Em is the grounding heart of the film, a reliable and caring friend, she’s often the only one willing to listen and take a moment away from the circus to have a human moment and check in.
More than anything, “How to Have Sex” is masterful in showcasing the drive and apprehension of sexual coming of age. Tara encounters the addictive feeling of being desired, but also a brutal collision with the subjugation that can follow: the simultaneous and confounding combination of affirmation and apprehension with being the object of the male gaze. Walker’s script picks apart the harsh dichotomy of reckoning with the fact that what you want more than anything can also be a lust that is weaponized against you.
All three girls are looking to satiate a need: agency, validation, and sometimes at the very least, freedom and fun. They’re meandering towards a blurry resolution, unsure of what it’s meant to be but somewhat confident in the means of achieving it. “How to Have Sex” treats these hungers with humanity and empathy, and even in moments of reckoning, does not deliver them as punishment or judgment. Glimpses into a very specific corner of girlhood's ups and downs and the unshakeable beams of sisterhood make Walker’s "How To Have Sex" unforgettably relatable.