THE STORY – Three British teenage girls go on a rites-of-passage holiday – drinking, clubbing and hooking up, in what should be the best summer of their lives.
THE CAST – Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, Shaun Thomas, Samuel Bottomley, Enva Lewis & Laura Ambler
THE TEAM – Molly Manning Walker (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
Even after centuries of human civilization, change, and growth, nothing gets people more riled up than the topic of sex. When it comes to women and sex, that adds an additional layer of discomfort and patriarchal ideals that have looked down upon women for simply wanting to enjoy pleasure as much as anyone else.
Perhaps the most exhausting aspect of all is how people view female virginity. Women are told they should be “pure” until their wedding night, when they’re expected to basically hand their bodies over to their husbands, while men are typically celebrated for losing their virginity. When the moment does happen, many women know the feeling when they’ve built up to something for so long, only for it to feel so disappointing and grimy, especially when it’s shared with someone least worthy of the time.
Director/writer Molly Manning Walker has clearly heard enough of these situations as one forms the basis of her directorial debut, “How to Have Sex.” What starts off as a fun, raunchy vacation between three friends quickly becomes a nightmare for one who desperately wants to lose her virgin label. Manning Walker captures an onslaught of emotions through her script that is only enhanced by a phenomenal lead performance from Mia McKenna Bruce.
Tara (McKenna Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) touch down at the Greek party resort of Malia for the vacation of a lifetime. After taking exams and worrying about their futures, the three want nothing more than a few days of debauchery and drinking. From the film’s first moments, their loving friendship is on full display as they plunge into freezing waters. Their wild and compatible personalities also make for a good time – even when one has to hold another’s hair back while throwing up.
To really get the party going, cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni ups the neon lights to bring high energy during nighttime scenes, and then an eerie calm takes over the day in the almost-Western ghost town streets of Malia. Club-pounding music and sounds that sink in deeply put audiences right in the middle of the action as well.
For Tara, the trip could bring an opportunity to finally lose her virginity, making it more of a mission than messy partying. She soon makes friends with silly and flirty Badger (Shaun Thomas), although she later sets her eyes on his best friend Paddy (Sam Bottomley), who is the definition of a fuck boy. During one hardcore party night, Tara and Badger have fun until he’s brought up on stage for a game. As women kiss, touch and suck on every inch of his body, Tara clearly looks detached from all of it and leaves the headache-inducing party streets for something quieter. On her walk, she runs into Paddy, and even though she seems uninterested in any of his games, he has no qualms about taking advantage of her.
It’s here we really see the brilliance of Manning Walker’s film. It’s an uncomfortable scene to watch as Tara has an out-of-body experience, and McKenna Bruce portrays the hurt incredibly with her facial expressions and silence. She should be happy that it happened and with a cute guy too, but … it just wasn’t at all what she really wanted at that moment. Any woman who has been in a similar situation, who feels nothing but used after casual sexual, will know exactly what she’s feeling throughout the film. What makes it even worse is it seems there’s no one she can turn to because they’re all drunk, hungover, or partying, although Em can sense her friend is in trouble. There’s also a weird tension brewing between Tara and Skye that sadly never gets the spotlight it deserves.
Manning Walker doesn’t use her script to show that all men are absolutely terrible and women should never bother with them again. But she demonstrates how vital consent is, especially when drinking is involved. The lines are sometimes blurred, and Manning Walker often pulls back from the story before revisiting some scenes in full detail. She also wants to amplify the necessity of talking to one’s partner at every stage of the process. She examines Em and Paige’s (Laura Ambler) fling from the sidelines to show a more ideal situation rooted in communication, which could have ultimately used more screen time.
“How to Have Sex” showcases the most important elements of sex to create a moving story that never falls for cliches but is nevertheless effective in its messaging. This will hopefully be a huge career starter for McKenna Bruce, who so brilliantly carries a huge weight on her shoulders but still somehow manages to smile in the end. In a final devastating moment with Em, she gives herself time to let it all out and show someone just how much she’s hurting, and her friend fully gives her the support she needs. It provides all those who relate some much-needed hope that they, too, will emerge from a dark place.