Less an instructional film than a sloppy-drunk after school special about a girls trip gone wrong, Molly Manning Walker’s “How to Have Sex” folds a nuanced look at the pressures and permissiveness of teenage friendships inside a frustratingly didactic story about the vagaries of consent. Needless to say, that’s not the movie Walker’s three 16-year-old heroines were hoping to be in when they arrived on the Greek island of Malia for the kind of boot-and-rally bacchanalia that British kids have turned into a rite of passage. They signed up for “Spring Breakers,” only to find themselves stranded in something closer to an episode of “Skins.”
It’s not their fault. Best friends Tara, Em, and Skye have no way of knowing they’ve walked into a trap. They can’t hear the muted soundscape that Walker creates for them as they arrive on their first beach; they can’t see that cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni is shooting them with a detached remove that portends social horror even more clearly than it promises sexual hedonism (it should be noted that first-time director Walker is a gifted DP herself, having recently lensed the Sundance highlight “Scrapper”).
“Best! Holiday! Ever!” the girls chant at each other during the cab ride from the airport, oblivious to the dangers of deciding that in advance. They’ve also pre-determined that Tara — the trio’s last remaining virgin — will “get laid” by the time they go home, which proves to be another fraught case of putting the cart before the horse (it’s telling that these ultra-modern zoomers suddenly talk like the boys from “American Pie” whenever the subject turns to sex).
Tara seems on board with the plan, and it’s not as if it’ll be hard to find a willing partner for a feisty blonde with high cheekbones and a low-cut neon top. After all, the pool at the girls’ hotel is shaped like a giant penis, and the stench of Axe body spray rises off the surface of the water like the mist over a lake at dawn. Half the teens in London have gone on holiday while awaiting the results of the GCSE exams that will determine the course of their adult lives, and you probably couldn’t throw a bottle of Smirnoff Ice without hitting some horned up meathead who would be happy to assist Tara while deciding on his next unfortunate neck tattoo. Alas, there’s no guarantee that any of Tara’s potential suitors know how to have sex any better than she does. Odds are they don’t even care — not when so many of these kids have been socialized to think of sex as a consecration of their own self-worth.
“How to Have Sex” is at its best during its bass-heavy first half, when the thrust of Walker’s attention is focused on the nuances of Tara’s friendship with Skye and Em. As played by the excellent Mia McKenna Bruce, Tara is an unusually nuanced lead for such a morally straightforward movie. Street smart but academically challenged, Tara is brash and bull-headed in a way that disguises her relative innocence — as well as her private fear that the GCSE results will put her on a very different path than her besties. The pressure Tara feels to join the club and have sex is even more intense now that she feels like even the smallest fissure between she and her friends might fracture them apart forever, and it doesn’t help that Tara — like so many of the people she meets in Malia — seems privately convinced that everyone else is having more fun than she is.
Maybe if she has another bathtub-sized blue drink everything will fall into place. Maybe if she finally gets laid she’ll be able to postpone her actual loss of innocence: The crushing realization that her life may not live up to the dreams she once had for it.
The other two members of the clique are either too cynical or not cynical enough. Em (Enva Lewis) is a disappointingly underwritten sweetheart who’s too busy snogging her lesbian crush to notice that Tara is going through it, while Skye (Lara Peake) is an insecure bully whose appetite for deep-fried cigarettes is only matched by her need to undercut Tara at every opportunity. She’s the kind of girl who only seems interested in fucking the guys her friends like, so when Tara hits it off with the bleach-blond Mancurian who’s staying in the next room over, it’s only a matter of time before Skye casually tells him that Tara has never had sex before.
His name is Badger, he’s played by Shaun Thomas, and he basically looks like what might happen if Ben Platt made 300 bad decisions in a row. Nevertheless, Badger’s good-hearted nature is blindingly obvious from the moment he appears on screen; likewise, all the booze in the world can’t hide the fact that his best mate Paddy (Barry Keoghan look-alike Samuel Bottomley) is an absolute “nightmare of a guy.”
On their own, these characters are thuddingly one-dimensional for a movie so attuned to the gray areas of sexual assault, and they soon come to epitomize how the movie around them fails to support Tara’s struggle with the drama it deserves. But there’s something painful and true about Badger’s attachment to Paddy in spite of everything, just as it makes sense that Tara would still fear growing apart from someone as spiteful as Skye: At that age, friends aren’t people you like so much as the entire context of your social existence, and losing them can feel tantamount to losing a part of yourself.
A semi-effective reminder that consent isn’t necessarily the end of the conversation, Walker’s film is far more powerful as a portrait of the things that people allow of themselves (and their friends) in the interest of self-preservation. Even during the clumsiest moments of its overwrought third act, “How to Have Sex” never loses sight of what these characters are willing to overlook, or why. And after alternating between several different modes of cringe cinema for most of its first 90 minutes (is it possible to get alcohol poisoning second-hand?), Walker’s debut ends on a soberingly painful note that makes the whole thing seem like more than the sum of its parts, as Tara, at long last, sees herself with a clarity that she’ll be able to keep forever — a valuable souvenir rescued from a holiday that she’ll never be able to forget.
“How to Have Sex” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. MUBI will release it in the United States later this year.