Mia McKenna-Bruce in How to Have Sex.
Unfolding in waves of boozy, neon-soaked hedonism, Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex presents us with an experiential journey through both euphoria and dread. Seen mostly through the eyes of recent British high-school graduate Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) who has just arrived in Greece for a few days of post-exams summer fun alongside her two friends, Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake), the film has all the trappings of a coming-of-age story, but it’s too drifty and imprecise for that. Manning Walker, a cinematographer making her feature directing debut, heaps on the atmosphere — vivid colors, throbbing music, flashing lights, shouting and dancing and gyrating and vomiting — and lets her star’s face do most of the emotional and narrative work. As Tara goes from boisterous, impatient party girl to an unnerved shell of her former self, we understand that something has changed forever.
This is probably the right approach to a story that, in its broad outlines, could easily have become a simplistic cautionary tale, a racier version of an after-school special. Instead, Walker’s delicate eye and feel for rhythm lend the movie an ominous cadence. We know pretty much from the start that nothing good can come of this techno-fueled descent into hell. Among her friends, the diminutive Tara at first seems to be the most gung ho, the most boisterous, her rapid-fire shriek of a voice aspiring to an authority that isn’t really there.
She also happens to be a virgin, and is hoping to finally get laid during this soused sojourn. She has a promising early connection with Badger (Shaun Thomas), a bleached-blond boy with a truly dire “Hot Legends” neck tattoo, who makes a bold but sweet overture to her from the balcony next door: “Oi, smoke show!” he yells, with a laugh. But then there’s Badger’s friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), who’s more confident, more experienced, and more “fit,” as the kids put it.
At its best, How to Have Sex captures the kinds of unspoken rituals that occur within groups of excitable youth, the way certain people hover around each other and the way others can just swoop in, the paroxysms of longing and jealousy and spite and shame that are the lingua franca of being a teenager. It also captures the ways that such interactions can quickly become poisoned and dangerous.
Walker isn’t here to scold or condemn, however. She seems to realize that all these people are on some level deeply confused, about themselves and about each other. All throughout, McKenna-Bruce’s expressive performance anchors the film. We can’t always tell what’s happening, but we can see Tara’s bravado crumble as disorientation, fear, and regret take hold of her.
As with several other recent (and very different) pictures about tourists discovering the bleakness of the world against sunny Mediterranean and/or Aegean settings, we see relatively little evidence of the locals in How to Have Sex. These wild British teens are mostly confined to the world of their resort and its immediate surroundings, a street full of clubs and bars and late-night kebab and fry shops, just steps away from a beach we never quite see in full. In some ways, the film is as notable for what it doesn’t show as for what it does. If it feels somewhat hazy and unsatisfying as a story, that is perhaps by design. Its fragmented, elliptical style has the quality of a dark, fragile memory.