For women of a certain age who grew up being told that if they wore the wrong thing, drank a little too much, or gave the wrong signals that they were “asking for it,” it might seem like the youths of today have it good, or at least quite a bit better. Consent seems to matter. Clothing coverage does not. Victims are listened to, sometimes at least.
And yet for all the freedom and exhibitionism and sexual liberation that might be projected on social media, teens are still teens and people are still people and things still happen, casually and in quietly catastrophic grey areas. These are truths that are conveyed powerfully in “How to Have Sex,” a stylish, assured and moving debut from writer-director Molly Manning Walker that opens in North American theaters on Friday.
“How to Have Sex” is not didactic, however, which is what makes it so effective. It’s just a story about a girl, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and her two friends, Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake) on holiday at a party resort in Greece. They’re looking to drink and dance, wear neon bustiers and bathing suits and complicated mesh coverups and meet some guys. Ideally some “fit” ones. And it starts out so fun, like a more innocent and realistic “Spring Breakers.”
Parties on screen rarely feel as fun as they’re supposed to — the joy often looks a little forced. But Walker somehow makes you feel like you’re actually there and kind of loving it, regardless of whether you were the “MTV Beach House” or “Love Island” type, even as a voyeuristic exercise. Much of that energy comes from the three friends, immediately believable as such, charismatic and adorable as they squeal about a very unremarkable hotel room being “luxury.”
Some guys enter the picture soon too, just one balcony over (“Romeo, Romeo where is you?” one character coos). Badger (Shaun Thomas), the guy who catcalls Tara, is probably not many girls’ idea of a Romeo at least on first sight. His hair is badly bleached — a kind of ’90s boyband look. He’s got a neck tattoo with a red pout and “Hot Legends” scrawled underneath it. This is not boyfriend material or even hookup material, right?
And yet there’s an immediately sweet chemistry between him and Tara, who are both posturing as too-cool party people down for any number of humiliating public spectacles, but probably would just rather spend a night in on the couch with each other. In any event, a flirt-ship is born, but other pressures of youthful wildness abound.
Tara, we come to find, is a virgin. This is something Skye makes her feel self-conscious about while also trying to push her to get rid of on the trip. This rite-of-passage has fueled any number of teen comedies over the years, often from the horny boys’ point of view. But the lightheartedness, even in the not-rapey ones, can deny and diminish a reality that its not such a simple thing for either gender.
“How to Have Sex” is partly a movie about trust, knowing who to trust and how to trust yourself but also how to regain that after something traumatic like sexual assault. Badger’s friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) does not seem all that different from him, but his vibe is oh so subtly off. Who can discern that at 16 with people you’ve just met? Skye, similarly, seems like she has Tara’s best interests in mind, but this is also a friendship that she’s too naïve to know is not a healthy one.
There is a hard turning point when things stop being fun in “How to Have Sex,” when one morning Tara is missing from both hotel rooms. Some are concerned. Some are not. One person thinks its funny. She comes back and her night is recreated for the audience, but Tara is changed — a shell of the vibrant person she was just a few hours prior unsure of what she’s feeling, if it’s valid and if anyone would care.
Walker often lets the camera linger on McKenna-Bruce’s face and eyes that convey all the things she can’t find the words for. It is a shattering performance and made all the more devastating because it’s so subtle, without big tears or smashing of mirrors or anything theatrical. Tara just slinks away into a depressive state that barely anyone notices. Her vacation, and life, has turned into a nightmare; Everyone else is still having fun.
“How to Have Sex,” a MUBI release in select North American theaters Friday, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association. Running time: 90 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.