How To Have Sex is a heartfelt and heartbreaking hollybop

Director: Molly Manning Walker Starring: Mia McKenna Bruce, Lara Peake, Enva Lewis, Samuel Bottomly, Shaun Thomas Running Time: 98 minutes

You hear them before you see them, just like in real life. Molly Manning Walker opens her film How To Have Sex on a blank black screen, with the sounds of a plane landing, lads and gals cheering, singing, slurring. Already on a mad one. Young, dumb and full of enthusiasm, a plane of young Brits arrive in Malia absolutely gasping for sun, fun and a lot of drinks, but all those things in service to the thing that’s really brought them there. The one in the title. It feels at first primal, all hormones, sweat and alcohol flowing, but the package holiday spot, the hotel-organised drinking games, the ‘strip’, the posturing, it all makes for an utterly artificial setting, and Manning Walker exposes the enormous pressure that contrast creates, how it effects the young people who thrust themselves into it, and the complex dynamics of how first sexual experiences should and shouldn’t take place.

Fresh from their exams, with varying levels of certainty for the future ahead of them, bestie Brits Tara, Em and Skye arrive to the Greek island of Malia for a rite-of-passage holiday, drinking, clubbing and in particular, hooking up. They’re planning to keep score of how much they score, the loud talk about sex typical of those who haven’t had much of it yet, in particular Tara, adamant that she “won’t die a virgin”. Played by Mia McKenna Bruce, Tara is loud and lairy but lovely, a funny, kind hearted and up-for-it partyer.

Em is the brains, Skye always knows exactly what her friends should wear or how they should do their make up, but its Tara that has the charisma, the humour and the self-ease to keep the craic going during their nights out, and to attract the hooks up they’re after. As they party, we see the deeper nuances of their girl gang come out; how Tara and Em look out for each other (the least and most academic, but best and worst drinkers respectively), Skye’s mean streak, how Tara’s confidence becomes so vulnerable through the lens of her virginity.

Tara attracts the eye of lad-next-door Badger, and the complexities of sex, consent, and self-discovery emerge as their groups merge. McKenna Bruce shines even brighter with more performers to play off, flowing between her character’s varying levels of comfort, confidence and certainty in what’s happening and what she wants. As Badger, Shaun Thomas comes across exactly as gentle and soft-spoken as it’s possible for a loudmouth Bradford lad to be, while Samuel Bottomly impresses also with a quiet performance of being an absolute danger. The look in his eyes as he interacts with Tara is depressingly familiar, a boy who has not yet and may never think of a girl as a fellow human being.

Manning Walker has a fine line to walk with the story she’s telling, and that comes out confidently in her debut feature. Frenetic edits and busy framing fit the setting and flow nicely – sexy, exciting nights smashing into being sickeningly over-stimulating. Her experience as a DP comes across, the way that the same beach feels different depending on what story beat we’re at – warm and welcoming or ominously alien. An aerial shot of a hotel pool shaped like a penis, shot on location, asks a question is hungover inhabitants mightn’t think to ask, is this not a bit much? Wide shots of the strip look post apocalyptic, their dangers more obvious to the viewer than to the kids on the other side of the screen.

The film can at times be uneven. Tara is unaccounted for at one point, and while her absence fits the story, McKenna Bruce’s absence dips the film. The second half is a harsh hangover, again by necessity lacking the energy of the first, but the film finishes strongly enough to make up for it. Tara’s experiences and the fallout, or lack thereof, are deftly and delicately handled. They’re anti-climacticly unresolved in a manner that’s very true to life. The way that characters respond to Tara’s first time, and the very different ways that she opens up to them thereafter, reflect a girl in a transitioanary point in her life, in ways that have nothing to do with whether she’s had sex yet or not. Who are her true friends? How should she be treated? The film closes with an optimistic answer to its most pertinent question; will Tara be okay? She can be.

The material is a fine line, well walked with honesty and empathy by its creative team. Manning Walker’s sense of care pays off and she brings the exact performances needed by her talented young ensemble. Despite the noise, flashing lights, flashing bodies and splats of vomit, this trip to the strip is more mature than it seems at first glance, heartfelt and heartbreaking at once.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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