Writer-director Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex is a slow burn tale about a teenage rite of passage celebration that morphs into a much more precarious rite of passage for 16-year-old Tara (Mia McKenna Bruce). It deals with sex, friendship, consent, and a slew of other coming-of-age themes. The marvel of Walker’s film is that it takes a situation and complications that are far too common and makes it feel unique.
The movie starts as Tara and her friends Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), head to a Greek resort to cut loose after finishing school exams. On the docket is plenty of drinking, partying, and, hopefully, hooking up. The premise is about as simplistic as possible, yet the film is anything but. Walker fills the film with a level of nuance that belies her status as a first-time feature director. Her’s feels like a steady hand guiding Tara, and viewers, through emotionally knotty territory.
Right from the start, Walker emphasizes the unglamorous side of the girls’ plan. Nights spent dancing and being carefree finish with vomiting and sleeping on floors. After the girls make friends with the guys in the room next door, jealousy seeps into exchanges between Tara and Skye. Tara has her eye on Badger (Shaun Thomas), a scruffy dude with bleach-blonde hair straight out of the early 2000s. Badger seems like an okay guy, but he volunteers for one too many games at a pool party and kills whatever was brewing between he and Tara. That sets Tara off for her own adventure. Except she runs into Badger’s decidedly less charming and more persistent friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley).
Tara and Paddy end up on a beach and, well, the title of the movie clues viewers into what looms ahead. This is where the film’s themes of consent and communication come to the fore. As Tara and Paddy talk on the beach, her body language makes it clear that she isn’t into what’s happening but lacking the experience to properly navigate a situation like this, she becomes a passenger as Paddy forces the issue.
From that point on the film fills with dread as Tara processes what happened. She’s noticeably reserved around her friends, not that any of them notice. They’re too busy making jokes about her and Paddy and being caught up in their own fun to notice that Tara is not in a good place. Mia McKenna-Bruce’s performance soars in the back half of the film. She has a stare that’s simultaneously distant and precise. In shots where she’s by herself, you can practically read the thoughts running through Tara’s mind. In scenes with other people, the desperation she has for her friends to see that she’s in distress is intense.
In less skilled hands, How to Have Sex might be a maudlin, moralizing mess. Walker’s script is never didactic, and her direction is piercing without handholding. This is a film where the characters lack a lot of emotional and life experience, resulting in many lingering shots of silence and confused looks. Seeing them unable to articulate their complex feelings is absolutely the right approach. This is the kind of story that serves as a reminder that we all have so much to learn about ourselves and others, and one of life’s harshest lessons is that sometimes takes difficult situations to provoke these revelations.
Mubi releases How to Have Sex in theaters Friday February 2nd, 2024