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How to Have Sex

Party turns into soul-searching drama, in this authentic British tale of abrupt and crude teenage coming-of-age rituals - live from the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam


The action takes place in the Malia, a party town in Crete, Greece. But this could be anywhere. The party-goers never acknowledge the local language and culture. These are young human beings desperate to drink, dance and copulate, and there is barely room for anything else in their minds. A call from mum informs 18-year-old Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) that she failed her exams, and will have to repeat her studies. This does not prevent her from engaging in the mandatory fun environment. She is in company of her two BFFs, the outgoing and formidable Skye (Lara Peake) and the quietly confident Em (Enva Lewis). She must prove that she is prepared to get laid. The race is in: who will get shag first? And who will get f**ked the most?

Molly Manning-Walker’s debut feature is bursting with authenticity. This is an entirely palpable film with credible, moving performances. It never feels scripted and contrived. It’s almost like you are watching a real-life, juvenile version of Love Island, with all the inconvenient hurdles that life has in store for futile young people, and all the bizarre twists of fabricated romance. Men never wear shirts and women strut in the scantest of clothes whatever the time of the day. The three young women are silly, immature and yet enrapturing. The characters are fully-fledged and complex, and – despite their ordinary predicament – they never slip into cliches. There is no suggestion that they come from a dysfunctional background. What they go through is an all-too-familiar British rite of passage. These three girls could be your neighbour, your niece or indeed your daughter.

London-born and based, 30-year-old director Molly Manning-Walker, who also penned the movie script, opts to concentrate on Tara’s journey and psychology. The more outspoken Skye is the one who constantly constantly challenges and eggs her friend on. Em finds comfort in the arms of Paige (Laura Ambler), a butch lesbian who mingles with the local boys. Tara is attracted to Badger (Shaun Thomas), an easy-go-lucky, muscular and handsome teen of around her age and with deep bleached hair. They meet through a balcony conversation (the boys hired a flat just next to the girls). One of the biggest challenges is having a straightforward conversation. That’s because Tara is almost invariably intoxicated with copious amounts of alcohol. At one point, Skye provides Tara with hair-of-the-dog treatment just as the hapless girl is puking the drinks from the previous night. Plus, she mortifies her friend by disseminating the news: Tara is a virgin. How dare she???

One evening, Tara watches as badger gets groped and licked by a horny girl gang at the local bar. She snaps, and immediately embarks on a hectic quest for pleasure which she will barely remember the following day. She ends up on the beach with Badger’s careless and thuggish friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomly). While not filmed from a subjective perspective, How to Have Sex is wilfully structured in a gently fractured way not dissimilar to Tara’s inebriated mind. The girls are so busy partying and drinking that our young protagonist is not allowed sentimentalities. She must not voice her inner demons, reflect about the nature of consent, or attempt to recollect the sexual encounters that she may have had. A reminder that extreme binging can desensitise even the most sensible of human beings. Next time you go partying, don’t leave your humanity at home.

In the morning, the streets of Malia are the picture of armageddon: not a human being at sight and the tarmac littered with junk, as if hordes of desperate people looted the local stores and then quickly scurried to safety, fleeing from an impeding zombie invasion. These ugly images are representative of Tara’s messy state-of-mind. Who is going to clean it all up? Molly Manning-Walker gives viewers no easy answers, instead asking us to pick up the garbage pieces ourselves and try to make sense of Tara’s emotional chaos. On the other hand, How to Have Sex lacks an emotional climax, with the biggest conflict surfacing way too late into the story. This is a realistic and compelling movie that relies on a mostly flat narrative arc. The quietly moving story of fast-living youth.

How to Have Sex shows at the 53rd Rotterdam International Film Festival. It premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of the Festival de Cannes.

By Victor Fraga - 27-01-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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