Exploring consent, adulthood, and party culture, How to Have Sex does exactly what its title sets out to do: show us the difference between sex and rape.
If you didn’t grow up in the U.K., you’ve probably never been to Malia, a coastal town in Crete, Greece, to celebrate the end of high school. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t find the events depicted in writer-director Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex both deeply illuminating and uncomfortably familiar.
The film opens with three British teenage girls – Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, of Persuasion), Em (newcomer Enva Lewis), and Skye (Lara Peake, of Brave New World) – getting ready to have the “best holiday ever” in said coastal town. Soon, we find out that, to them, this means partying as much as they can, drinking at all hours of the day, and meeting boys they’re hoping to sleep with. “If you don’t get laid in this holiday, you never will,” says one of the girls to Tara, the only one of them who has yet to lose her virginity. And soon enough, Tara meets a boy. He goes by the name of Badger (Shaun Thomas, of Ali & Ava), and he invites them to his room, which he shares with his mate Paddy (Samuel Bottomley, of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) and more friends. “What are we gonna say? We’re, like, 18, right?,” the underage girls agree before heading out.
Soon, they all start partying together, and the dynamics between both groups immediately change. On one hand, there’s the excess that comes from acting exactly in the way you’re expected to behave at these kinds of holidays, getting drunk and taking part in all sorts of “fun” games involving sex that they’ll have forgotten all about the next day. On the other hand, there are the secrets they keep from one another, afraid that, if they reveal that they’re not exactly having the “best holiday ever” after all, they won’t fit in anymore.
But there’s also the pressure put on young girls to dress and behave in a certain way so that they’d get to have the one experience that would make them look “cool” and confirm that they’re “normal”: having sex with a boy. And then there’s the expectation of how incredible and life-affirming that first time should be like, which means that you can’t possibly tell your very best friends that it really wasn’t, and that not only did it not make you feel loved and fulfilled, but you hated every second of it, and, if you really think about it, you didn’t even want it to happen in the first place.
And then there’s the jealousy coming from those very same girlfriends who love you, but whose need to be “better” and more experienced than you makes them say and do horrible things that they conceal as jokes. After all, it’s only natural for girls to have to compete with one another, since society tells us that a girl’s only way to fit in and be fulfilled is to be desired by a boy. And so, this weird paradox becomes the norm, where you’re having the time of your life surrounded by your best friends while, at the same time, feeling lonelier than ever, unable to talk about the extremely scarring, traumatic experiences you’re having out of fear of being judged. And so, you drink to numb the pain, isolating yourself even more and letting the cycle continue, having suddenly become an “adult” in the worst possible way.
It’s best not to say what exactly happens in How to Have Sex, as the film will affect you so much more if you discover it on your own, and let its message sink in one scene after the other, until the credits roll and you’re left with a movie you won’t be able to forget anytime soon. Because what Molly Manning Walker has crafted in her honest, affecting feature debut is nothing short of incredible.
How to Have Sex is a film that will grab your attention from the very first shot, immersing you in the lives of our three protagonists and making you feel as if you were there with them. Mia McKenna-Bruce is exceptional as Tara, making us feel every single emotion her character is experiencing often with facial expressions and body language alone. As Em and Skye, Enva Lewis and Lara Peake are superb, each making their characters believable both as individuals and as part of a group. Shaun Thomas brings incredible depth to Badger, a character you’ll absolutely underestimate at the start of the film but then come to appreciate. It can’t have been easy to play Paddy, one of the most uncomfortable roles in the film, but Samuel Bottomley rises to the occasion delivering a character we don’t despise despite the unfortunate choices he makes.
But the real star of the film is the screenplay, as How to Have Sex manages to make a stand on how wrong party culture is when it comes to teenagers’ sexual experiences, but, at the same time, also treats every single one of its characters with compassion, blaming the system instead. Molly Manning Walker’s film successfully captures our society’s obsession with sex, the insecurities of growing up, the pressures put on young women to behave in a certain way, and the isolation that comes from not only not being allowed to tell your truth, but also not knowing what that truth really is. Because How to Have Sex does exactly what the title set forth to do: teach us what consent really looks like, and ultimately show us the difference between sex and sexual assault.
Not only is How to Have Sex a very promising debut from a director to keep an eye on, but it should be a mandatory watch for everyone. Not to be missed.
How to Have Sex was screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival and will be released in theaters and on Mubi soon. Read our list of 25 movies to watch at the 2023 London Film Festival!