People tend to romanticize the concept of sex, building it up as something life-changing that is sure to be satisfying and perfect on the first try. That’s rarely the case, and building an emotional relationship with someone doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with a sexual experience. But it’s also not what everyone wants, eager to simply lose their virginity as a rite of passage and around the same time as friends. That desire can come with unexpected consequences, including a dangerous societal attitude that wanting one thing and getting something else is the victim’s fault no matter what their role in it. How to Have Sex navigates that difficult and traumatic space in its depiction of three young women on a wild holiday trip.
Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) travels to Malia, an epic Greek resort town, with her best friends Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis). They’re just taken their exams and are ready to party. Tara in particular knows what she wants from this trip since she’s still a virgin, and it doesn’t take long before she meets a few boys staying in a nearby room. As an alcohol-fueled night progresses, Tara finds herself drawn to Badger (Shaun Thomas) but instead ends up being left with his friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), who isn’t nearly as concerned about what Tara actually wants and doesn’t care if she’s not fully present when he’s ready to have sex with her.
How to Have Sex boasts a title that might make its content seem much flightier and less serious than it is, but it’s also true to life. Those who aim to fulfill an experience and seek it out with reckless abandon can likely achieve what they wish, but it won’t always go as planned. The notion that someone is “asking for it” by dressing or behaving a certain way doesn’t in any way excuse the behavior of men who are easily able to get away with toxic and abusive acts, and the shame and embarrassment that women are made to feel when they believe they’ve been taken advantage of can be devastating and only compound the problem.
Molly Manning Walker makes an impressive feature debut after her similarly-themed short film Good Thanks, You? which examines the aftermath of a sexual assault. The trained cinematographer, who worked on the Sundance prize winner Scrapper, has a keen eye for character and for showcasing stark figures in front of a backdrop that seems ready to swallow them whole. Tara and her friends travel somewhere to be anonymous and blend in with those around them, yet this experience is a harrowing one that makes it all too impossible to forget what they’ve endured and who specifically was responsible.
McKenna-Bruce, an established TV actress in the UK, turns in a spectacular performance as Tara, someone who is eager to be seen and heard, unconcerned with whether people think of her as an airheaded attention-seeker. Yet it’s precisely that image and reputation that make her retreat into herself when she thinks she has done something wrong, hiding what has happened from her friends and attempting to spin it into something positive, the goal she set out to achieve. Her performance is an enduring one that speaks volumes and, as captured in Walker’s film, has the power to demonstrate that those who are victimized are not responsible for what happens to them. This film and its cast compellingly convey the importance of telling the truth and of looking at events through the proper lens, one that assigns blame to those who do wrong and not those without the ability to stop them.
How to Have Sex screened in the Spotlight section at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released in theaters on Friday, February 2nd.