Booze-Soaked ‘How to Have Sex’ Paints an Unflinching Portrait of Teen Sex and Consent

For her feature debut, filmmaker Molly Manning Walker takes an unflinching look at a common rite of passage, spring break, The result is “How to Have Sex,” a coming-of-age drama following a trio of British teen gal pals as they head to Crete for a last hurrah before they possibly part ways for different colleges. Mia McKenna-Bruce anchors the film as Tara, the less self-assured of the three young women, who has plans to lose her virginity on the trip.

Tara is egged on by the less inhibited Skye (Lara Peake) and cool Em (Enva Lewis). From the start of the trip, the BFFs have big plans to drink tons of alcohol and have loads of sex, but even when they are bombed out of their minds, their anxieties about their uncertain futures are never far from their thoughts, as they are awaiting the results of a college-entrance exam they all took before they left. The girls check into a packed hotel, then discover that they are next to another trio of young travelers with similar plans to get laid and drink copious amounts of alcohol: bleach-blonde, bro Badger (Shaun Thomas), arrogant Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and tattooed lesbian, Paige (Laura Ambler). 

Em gravitates toward Paige, while Skye flirts with Badger, even though Tara had her sights on him first. This leaves Tara with Paddy, with whom she half-heartedly enters into a holiday “romance.” Manning Walker does a great job of tapping into the dynamics in friendship groups of young women without getting overly “Mean Girls.” Tara is the shy girl who seems younger than the others, Em is protective and sensitive, while Skye is the fun one who uses her loud mouth to mask a lot of insecurities. Each actor plays her role beautifully, and the 30-year-old filmmaker, who is not far from those years herself, shows her characters much empathy. While other dramas tend to be punitive to young people who partake in hedonism, particularly young women, this one is refreshing in the way it seeks to be compassionate and understanding.

“How to Have Sex” is far from the typical teen sex drama that idealizes what it is like to be young and want to party until dawn. For starters, this one has more of a slice-of-life structure. The nighttime scenes are mostly loud, bright and dizzy, and are followed by more lackadaisical daytime scenes of the characters recovering, using the beds together, or in shifts. One cannot watch without recalling their own worst hangovers. 

What “How to Have Sex” does best is portrays reality versus expectations, when it comes to things like spring break and losing one’s virginity. These types of experiences almost never live up to the hype, especially first-time sex. In Tara’s case, it is unflinchingly realistic, even devastating, in showing what she goes through when her first sexual experiences end in assault. Even in a sea of people, or in a crowded hotel rooms, there are striking moments where she feels alone, ignored, or worse. Even to her best friends, she is unable to articulate her true feelings. All of this leads to an emotional, impactful scene between Tara and Em, in a duty-free shop at an airport, before the women head back to the U.K. and the rest of their lives.

How to Have Sex” releases Feb. 2 in select theaters.