As the sun rises over the coastal town of Malia in Crete, three teenage girls strip to their underwear and wade into the sea. The water is freezing, but they cackle through the discomfort: like many of the memories they will make on this holiday, this is a bonding experience, and a rite of passage. Gold and pink light floods the scene as the camera lingers, affectionately, on a washed-up box of cigarettes. In How to Have Sex debut writer-director Molly Manning Walker is keenly aware that teenage girls can find romance anywhere, including a sodden packet of fags. But the scene’s rose-tinted lensing is a clue that in the cold light of day, the same things might look different.
Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), all 16, are waiting for their GCSE results at a holiday resort with a swimming pool shaped like an enormous cock and balls. The trio are determined to have “the best holiday ever!” and to obliterate their anxieties about growing up and growing apart with partying and booze. The baby-faced and babyish Tara also hopes to shed her virginity on the trip, spurred on by the girls, who loudly offer their tactics. The catty Skye in particular cheers on each of Tara’s brushes with the opposite sex like a foul-mouthed football coach. They set their sights on two older lads staying in the apartment next door: the goofy, neck-tattooed Badger (Shaun Thomas) and his brooding best mate Paddy (Samuel Bottomley).
As the girls drift drunkenly from the pool to the club and back again, fortified by cheesy chips, they are bombarded with various displays, or rather, performances, of sexuality. Party games involving bikini-clad girls and beer begin to escalate as the holiday progresses, with each experience presented as a kind of notch on the girls’ bedposts. At a beach club, Tara, a gobby and swaggering flirt, watches, frozen, as one character receives fellatio on stage. McKenna-Bruce’s furrowed brow and shocked expression betray Tara’s obvious discomfort, as well as her lack of experience. It seems like everyone’s inhibitions are lowering except hers.
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But because Manning Walker knows how to shoot a party, likely thanks to her background in music videos and work as a cinematographer, we understand why the girls are there. Instead of urging the audience to sneer at their excess, Manning Walker immerses them in it. The film’s kinetic camerawork weaves in and among the action, capturing the seductive, propulsive energy of a great night out. The sheen of sweat on the girls’ faces glitters under green and lilac neon lights, a reminder that they just want to have fun.
Which is why it’s all the more devastating when Manning Walker reveals the film as a twist on a well-established genre, the holiday from hell. One night, Tara goes missing, and when she reappears, the film’s tone shifts radically. Things start to look and feel like a horror movie, slow zooms detailing the town’s apocalyptically empty streets, littered with rubbish and broken glass. And Tara takes on a zombie-like quality too, becoming withdrawn and distant from her friends.
Flashbacks reveal that Tara has spent part of the night on the beach, with Paddy. Unable to offer a clear “no”, she eventually utters a defeated “yes”. McKenna-Bruce’s heartbreaking expression makes clear she never imagined an experience like this, and didn’t enjoy it. Returning to the party afterwards, the sound leeches out of the scene, and her breathing quickens.
Manning Walker, who won the Un Certain Regard award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, blows up a particular teen girl experience to better see its nuances. The scenarios the film dramatises are highly specific and utterly, tragically credible, but its realism never feels worthy or drab.
“Did he throw you around?” says Skye with a smirk. “I know I liked it,” Tara replies when the girls press her on what happened, as if trying to convince herself too. The social pressure to accrue “experience” is presented as a gag order. But the film articulates what Tara can’t. A verbal yes doesn’t automatically translate as consent, and her virginity loss doesn’t mean she suddenly knows “how to have sex”. The film makes the sharp assessment that for both young men and women, constant exposure to a culture steeped in sex does not necessarily lead to useful carnal knowledge. It’s a provocative one, that leaves the film vulnerable to both sex-positive feminists and pearl-clutching conservatives, who might similarly view it as “against” teen sex. But Manning Walker’s strength is her willingness to explore a grey area. There’s an understanding that young women experience and therefore pursue desire, and that sometimes, the same women also feel unable to communicate what feels safe and pleasurable in the moment. Having that language, the film seems to say, would help them to say what doesn’t, too.
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