‘I can’t die a virgin,' says the teenage Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) after landing in Malia with her besties Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis). Like Ibiza and Magaluf, this sweaty place is a Mediterranean party town – seemingly designed for drunk tourists to cause havoc under high temperatures and heavy neon lights. In the summer after taking their GCSEs, these British girls venture into Malia’s hedonistic, all-consuming haze that barely allows for a decent night’s sleep.
For those of us who were never cool enough to embark on these trips, How to Have Sex resembles a confirmational guide to the rank and dank and filth of repulsive youth. And this is where the loud but clearly reluctant Tara wants to lose her virginity, or feels compelled to.
Mia McKenna-Bruce and Enva Lews as Tara and Em. Photo: MUBI
This directorial debut from Scrapper cinematographer Molly Manning Walker stands like the female antithesis of The Inbetweeners Movie (also set in Malia). Whereas the latter shows the comedy of teenage boys trying to get laid, How to Have Sex shows the creepy pressure on young girls to let it happen.
Tara meets Badger (Shaun Thomas), an older, party-loving lad who’s probably in his early twenties (ages are uncomfortably ambiguous here). There’s an element of care about him; he forms a genuine connection with Tara. And despite Skye’s deceptive efforts to steal him away, they enjoy each other’s company.
But after Badger participates in an unbelievable yet totally convincing act on a stage, Tara drifts into the night and towards the more forceful arms of Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). Paddy is 'that guy'. Everyone’s encountered him: the one with a dodgy smile, the one with friends who tolerate his shady behaviour, the one who obviously sees sex as an almost singular activity.
Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas as Tara and Badger. Photo: MUBI
The story proceeds in these difficult, unregulated areas of consent and sexual assault, as well as the inarticulacy around them. Tara’s extroversion shades into withdrawal, with Skye and Em pursuing their own sexual interests instead of ensuring their friend's safety (recalling similar scenes in Michaela Coel’s culture-shifter I May Destroy You). Nicholas Canniccioni’s grungy, odorous visuals show the nausea of these places despite occasional pockets of fun. And bilious places attract bilious people.
Despite the exterior and reassuring air of ‘No one cares if you’re a virgin’, that status crushes Tara from the inside. She's scared of its alienating effect, like it would put off her ‘fit’ prospects. Even at Tara’s age, which is probably 16 (the age of consent in the UK), there’s a weird distance between her and her non-virgin friends – exacerbated by a lack of academic prowess. In the silly hierarchy of intelligence and sexual experience, she’s low.
How to Have Sex is a dark, depressing and absorbing debut that shows the questionable processes involved in growing up as a young woman, especially in a culture incensed with sex. McKenna-Bruce delivers a tough, brilliant performance, the camera magnetised by her disorientation and pretend enjoyment of the inebriated madness around her.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2023. How to Have Sex will be in UK cinemas on Friday 3 November.
|What||How to Have Sex review|
03 Nov 23 – 03 Nov 24, IN CINEMAS
|Price||£ determined by cinemas|
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