Film Review: “How to Have Sex” — Proper Instructions

By Gerald Peary

Has there ever been a better or more accurate film about young girls on the edge of adulthood testing out their sexuality?

How to Have Sex, directed by Molly Manning Walker. Screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Boston.

Mia McKenna-Bruce in How to Have Sex.

I am totally knocked out by the new British feature How to Have Sex, which rightly won first prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. Has there ever been a better or more accurate film about young girls on the edge of adulthood testing out their sexuality? In this case, it’s three teenagers on a hedonist trip to Malia in Crete to drink and party, with all pledged to get laid. First-time writer-filmmaker Molly Manning Walker does a miraculous job turning a story as old and perhaps stale as the 1960 Where the Boys Are — Hollywood teeners frolicking in Fort Lauderdale — into something deeply felt and immensely meaningful. I am in awe of how Walker orchestrates her uniformly wonderful cast to step into the breathing, authentic life of today’s wound-up teenagers. Yes, it sometimes feels like a documentary.

For a time, the three girls, probably 17-year-olds, almost seem one, chugging drinks and jumping about in skimpy clothes and screaming, “Oh my God!” and acting purposefully daffy and infantile in the absence on Malia of any parental authority figures. Slowly, one of the girls, Tara (a sublime Mia McKenna-Bruce), emerges as the protagonist of the film. She’s the only one of the trio who admits to being a virgin, and one of her friends, Skye (Lara Peake), is insistent on pushing Tara to bed down with some randy boy here in Crete. Anyone really. In the abstract, Tara approves of the idea.

One morning, all the revelers with hangovers and needing to vomit gather on their terraces above the swimming pool, and, though in a weary alcoholic fog, realize that Tara is not among them. Several are a bit worried, including one nicer boy, Badger (Shaun Thomas), who has befriended her. But Skye thinks things are OK because Tara surely has hooked up with some young man and is now devirginized. Well, Skye turns out to be right, as Tara finally wanders in after a long, strange, extremely surreal night. Slowly, and unhappily, she reveals to Skye some of what had happened. Spoiler alert? Tara’s deflowering by an uncaring stud named Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) was, shall we say, less than desirable. It’s not incidental that the filmmaker has admitted to having been raped as a teenager and having suffered long afterward.

The first part of How to Have Sex is, by intention, a mindless frat party with more-than-eager sorority girls. All, male and female, are complicit in an atmosphere of heated debauchery. The second part is weighted down by what happened to Tara. Its vital feminist message, implied, never spelled out, still cannot be clearer. Even a hesitant “No” means emphatically “No.” I’ve watched several interviews with director Walker about showings of the film and the discussions after. Some young men have missed completely what Paddy did to Tara, or excused it as just what occurs when guys and girls get together. Other young men have fessed up, each saying guiltily, “I’ve been Paddy and I need to do better.”

My only bickering with this eloquent film is with its release title. It feels cheaply sensationalist, an amoral come-on to a work which is deeply moral. On the other hand, the title is, if really thought through, precise and correct. It IS about how to have sex. Cautiously. Equitably. Respectfully. And though you’re down on the beach at night on Crete, perhaps not now.

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston; ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque; and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema; writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty; and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.

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