The One Coming-Of-Age Film You Need To Watch This Year
Three British teens on their first messy girls’ trip get lessons in life, consent and friendship.
When you’re a teenager, there is a five-year window where life inexplicably accelerates. Suddenly, the pressure, the rush, the urge to do everything (and now), compounds itself in a series of messily executed firsts that roll in hard and fast. First kiss. Getting wasted on cheap alcohol and the first tinge of morning-after regret. First taste of freedom on holiday with your mates without the protective shackles of parents, unleashed like wild animals via budget flight on some ill-prepared resort town. The gnawing sensation in your gut that you’re starting to figure out who you are, what you like and what your limits are – usually realised in the awful moments after someone oversteps them. The first time you have sex. On the surface, British film-maker Molly Manning Walker’s debut could be seen as a straightforward examination of the latter, but How To Have Sex – now streaming exclusively on MUBI – is much more than that. An electrifying and intimate exploration of young adulthood, consent and formative female friendships, certain to stir something not-long-forgotten within everyone.
“Best! Holiday! Ever!” scream best friends Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), three teenagers on a boozy, rites-of-passage girls' trip in the party hub of Malia in Crete. It’s a neon sweatbox where the stench of cheap body spray hangs like wet cotton wool in the air and fish bowls of mystery alcohol are speed-propelled down the gullet until puking point. Even the resort swimming pool is shaped like a penis, an apt vessel for the soup of horny, unsupervised Brits abroad. Upon arrival, the main objective is clear. “If you don’t get laid on this holiday, you never will,” they direct at baby-faced Tara, who we learn is the last of her friends to lose her virginity and feeling the pressure to pick a suitable partner in her quest.
The first boy we see is about 8 minutes into the film, jeering as he interrupts a photo of the girls together. It’s unsettling foreshadowing of the way that in a place like this (or anywhere for that matter) not everyone asks for permission when they interject themselves into your life and take what they want from you. The next day, on their neighbouring balcony, the girls befriend some hard-partying lads: Badger (Shaun Thomas), who Tara immediately takes a liking to, and his best friend, boorish ladies man Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). It’s not immediately clear which one Tara will have the pleasure of hooking up with. In fact, it quickly becomes clear that there may not be any pleasure involved at all.
It takes experience and hindsight to realise that here, everyone’s objectives of personal gain look different. For Tara, Skye and Em, it might be to come away with a wild story or two; they haven’t the experience yet to know that some wild stories are the only consolation prize of a zero sum game where someone wins and another loses. Molly Manning Walker takes an unflinching look at the nuances of consent, as well as the complicity of the seediness of nightclub culture and the male entitlement it breeds. There’s an unshakeable dread around the way a bad night for a boy wasted on a party island on his own does not have the same capacity for disaster as for a girl. In the same way, it’s a brutal learning curve the first time you realise that your parents have been right, not just about some things, but about many things. Not everyone has your best interests at heart, and it’s a fair concern that ‘it’s not you we worry about, it’s them.’ They’re right to worry. Especially in a place like this, tailor-made for short-lived hedonism; where the urgency and transactional nature of any interaction is ramped up by blackout inebriation and raging teen hormones.
My own end-of-year holiday was in Albufeira in Portugal. Nights were spent in hedonistic excess, drinking as much as our bodies would let us get away with, and days were spent debriefing juicy talking points: Who was sick on themselves? Who ended up doing what on the beach? Then it was time for the first drink of the day and to do it all over again. The first thing How To Have Sex gets right is that it does genuinely feel like the best holiday ever, after all, you haven’t really got much to compare it to.
It’s not hard to feel gut-twisting anxiety watching How To Have Sex, seeing the girls drink with the kind of wild abandon only the naivety of youth can grant. I cringe remembering one holiday, after losing my friends, heedlessly going toe to toe with a barman doing absinthe shots, and then… oblivion. Eventually, after finding me passed out in a locked toilet cubicle, one of my friends had to climb over the partition and fireman’s lift me up the steep, stony passage all the way home. Thankfully, the extent of the damage was a hangover from hell, but we heard stories of girls in similar circumstances who were not so fortunate. How To Have Sex completely avoids any victim-blaming notions of ‘wrong place, wrong time’, or drunkenness as being an invitation to come to harm’s way, instead, it looks at rape culture as a symptom of a serious societal problem.
When you’re a teenager, the lowest lows come with the highest highs. One perfect moment from the film is from the very first night, where we see the girls euphorically tumbling in the sea together. It’s a scene which perfectly encapsulates these sacred moments with your mates in early adulthood where you feel truly invincible, and you could swear under oath that you’ll be friends forever. Over the duration of the film, Tara realises some hard truths about the people that she surrounds herself with. It sums up the way that friendships in early adulthood can be as formative in their disintegration as they are in their companionship. Part of life is accepting that there will be people who relish in your humiliation or downfall, and shedding them only makes you lighter. And, that in moments of inebriation or trauma, having good people around you that actually care can make all the difference.
After the big, first, unsupervised taste of freedom, no one gets away totally unscathed or unaltered, How To Have Sex seems to say. But there are no coming-of-age clichés here. The world isn’t split up into bad and nice, and often complete strangers can be the kindest and dear friends can be the cruellest. There are moments that are very difficult to watch but we don’t get a cautionary tale as such. Instead, a snapshot of a confusing time in everyone’s life, with the sympathetic understanding that we all have our own roads to walk, and there is no set way of how to do anything for the first time. It’s beautiful, messy, dreadful, and totally our own.
Trigger warning: This movie contains sensitive content regarding sexual assault.