Film Review: “How to Have Sex” — The Holiday Trap
By Steve Erickson
How to Have Sex doesn’t criticize teenage girls for wanting to get laid, but it points out how the cultural environment in which they do so is directed entirely toward male pleasure.
How to Have Sex, directed by Molly Manning Walker. Screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Boston.
How to Have Sex contains a particularly telling absence, one that only dawned on me after I finished watching the film. This is the story of three British girls’ week on vacation in the Mediterranean, but it’s surprisingly light on social media and cell phones for a movie that revolves around the lives of 16-year-olds. But this lacuna reflects some of the narrative’s references, especially the ugly behavior and endless partying on Reality TV shows like Jersey Shore. Accidentally, the characters here end up being caught up in the commercial mindset that guides programs that are produced for the sake of mass entertainment: people are pressured to drink heavily and isolate themselves in a small social circle while their leisure options are narrowed down to having sex and going out dancing.
On TV, this setup manipulates people toward lascivious interludes (or at least whatever heavy breathing editing can come up with). In How to Have Sex, teenagers view this kind of environment of drunken sexual tension as an exciting rite of passage. But, predictably, they end up being manipulated because the erotized scenario masks their immaturity and repressed emotions.
In a ritual akin to American spring break, best friends Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) arrive in the Greek resort of Malia. They have just graduated from school and are expecting a great time. Tara is the only virgin, a fact that her friends publicize to the boys. She’s determined to hook up during the trip. Tara and her friends attend wild, sexually charged parties, where girls lick a boy’s chest onstage at a nightclub until he gets a blow job. The trio end up hanging out with the nice but dim Badger (Shaun Thomas) and his friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). Skye and Em return home from the club one night and wake up the following morning realizing that they don’t know where their friend had gone. Tara’s night is shown via a montage of fragmented, dissociated memories, in which she and Paddy have sex on the beach. She says yes to him, but she’s far too drunk to genuinely consent.
The barrage of loud music, bright colors, and garish lights can’t block out the girls’ feelings, but they can’t put their emotions into words. After the initial thrill of arrival in Malia, no one is having as much fun as they claim to be having — the pain is quite visible on their faces. The characters in How to Have Sex are practically postverbal, but they are hardly incommunicative. Manning Walker frames McKenna-Bruce’s Tara in close-ups that bring out the character’s brooding disappointment. There’s no ambiguity about how psychologically damaging the night on the beach was for her — at least for those who bother to look at Tara and take in how she behaves. Tara’s sudden dissociation and even heavier drinking clearly convey her sense of betrayal, even as she continues to hang around with Paddy.
Revealingly, the sound design of How to Have Sex is more important than its spare dialogue. Tara’s dawning realization that she’s been sexually assaulted is conveyed through her lapsing into a fugue state, signified by how dance music suddenly cuts out completely or becomes muted. Moreover, the soundtrack is full of threatening but unidentifiable noises. Raye’s 2022 pop hit “Escapism,” in which the singer undertakes a tormented attempt to self-medicate heartbreak away, plays at low volume during one scene. The lyrics’ relevance to Tara’s traumatic experience is plain.
How to Have Sex doesn’t criticize teenage girls for wanting to get laid, but it points out how the cultural environment in which they do so is directed entirely toward male pleasure — safety or respect is not a consideration. Poolside, a boy sticks a beer can down his boxer shorts; he then pours the brew into Tara’s mouth below. Rather than an act of seduction, it looks as though he’s urinating on the young woman. For the guys, these stunts are less about scoring than performing gestures of dominance in front of their friends. Tara, Skye, and Em don’t realize they’re surrounded by a cadre of predators who are working together. Worse, the young women haven’t even been given the vocabulary to understand and discuss consent.
Director Manning Walker carefully researched her film. She drew on her own experience of similar trips, but also interviewed teenage girls around the UK. She says “I hadn’t realized how much sexual influence it [her time at the resort and the sex she witnessed] had on my life.… these party holidays are built upon sexual pressure, which is such a strange thing.” How to Have Sex carefully avoids the exploitative tendencies of movies and TV shows that claim to be exposés of egregious male behavior, like Larry Clark’s Kids. To its credit, the film — despite its subject matter and skimpy costumes — doesn’t leer at the girls’ bodies. It avoids female nudity. Even better, How to Have Sex refuses to build up to, and then spell out, a grand, unambiguous lesson for its characters or viewers.
The holiday in How to Have Sex proves to be these girls’ trip into adulthood, but what they learn about life is much more sobering than they had expected. Still, at its most incisive, the film avoids making big statements, choosing to show rather than tell. The true, horrifying nature of this coming-of-age experience is seen in Tara’s early morning walk through Malia’s deserted streets, covered in garbage from the night before. At the end, the party is over and the girls begin to leave their friendship behind in pursuit of boys. But the hangover will linger.
Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, Bells and Whistles, was released in January 2024, and is available to stream here.