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‘How To Have Sex’ Review: A Heartbreaking Yet Fantastic Study of Consent

Molly Manning Walker truly puts herself on the map with this one, proving she's one to watch with a thought-provoking and vital piece of cinema.

How to Have Sex

British cinematographer and filmmaker Molly Manning Walker had quite the year in 2023. She was the cinematographer for Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper, a British drama focusing on a broken relationship between a Father and Daughter. Most notably, she released her feature directorial debut ‘How to Have Sex’. This follows three teenage gal pals going on a rite-of-passage girl’s holiday to Malia, where they plan to drink, club and hook up to their heart’s content. What should be the best summer of their lives turns sour, when lead Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, ‘Persuasion’) experiences a shocking encounter with a guy they’ve buddied up with on their trip. Exploring the topic of consent in a heart-breaking yet honest way, How to Have Sex is an important slice of realism that showcases excellent direction, tremendous performances and tells a story worth telling.

En route to Malia, the girls are chatty and excited. The main topic of discussion seems to be who will ‘get laid’ the most, whilst the girls playfully bicker about who they think will ‘pull’ the quickest. Skye (Lara Peake, How to Talk to Girls at Parties) and Em (Enva Lewis) seem quite confident that it will be one of them who gets it on first, much to their delight. However, our lead character Tara seems a little uncomfortable and awkward whilst discussing this topic, giving the impression that she may not be as experienced as her peers, and she might be more nervous about what’s to come than she’s letting on. This is a huge testament to the lead performance from Mia McKenna-Bruce, who gives a noticeable performance that’s worthy of her EE Rising Star Award nomination. McKenna-Bruce emotes so beautifully, her facial expressions saying a thousand words that her character is too scared and shy to verbalize. This is a running theme of the film, as Tara often struggles to verbalize how she’s feeling in that moment, no matter how much she wants to. McKenna-Bruce showcases that young adult female fear of speaking up so well, creating a relatable and likable lead that you want to wrap in bubble wrap and protect at all costs.

How to Have Sex

As soon as the girls touch down at the hotel, things get boozy very quickly. Whilst ‘pre-drinking’ on the balcony, they lock eyes with a group opposite them and quickly merge parties to start their night. We meet Paddy (Samuel Bottomley, Ghost Stories), who seems to be the ladies man/player of the group and Badger (Shaun Thomas, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), a softer party animal who immediately takes a shine to lead Tara, as well as other that make up the group. Bottomley, Thomas and the entire cast deliver such believable performances, that it’s often easy to forget that we’re watching acting. They’re having fun, dancing, smoking, knocking back drinks and getting to know each other, and it’s about as realistic as you can get in a cinema. It masterfully encapsulates that Brit’s abroad summer holiday vibe and is a perfectly cast flick, as each actor shows a true understanding of their character, completely becoming them.

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It’s a couple of nights into the holiday that the topic of consent is fully delved into. Tired, fed up with her friends and feeling a bit sullen, Tara goes off into the night with Paddy, and soon comes to regret this when an unconsensual encounter occurs on the beach. The tone of the movie is immediately affected, as Tara’s girl’s holiday comes crashing around her, as does her opinion and impression of sex. Seeing her realize that Paddy has taken something from her that she can never get back is horrifying, but unfortunately encapsulates the feelings of many women around the globe. As the script presses on, it cleverly shows us how this not only affects Tara’s mood and stops her from enjoying her holiday, but it affects her relationships, trust and opinion of others around her. She is no longer allowed to enjoy herself, and you can almost physically see her carrying the weight of the event on her shoulders. The combination of the careful, thorough writing and understanding from McKenna-Bruce in her performance makes this one hit hard.

Director and Writer Molly Manning Walker ensures her film has layers, by adding in another thoroughly explored theme – friendship. As the run-time progresses, we see dynamics change as certain events occur, and jealousy and competition ensue surrounding college results and who the guys are interested in. The friendship between Tara and Skye gets rocky, as Skye seems to be jealous that Paddy has taken a shine to Tara rather than her – as the audience, we know the truth, which makes it even more heartbreaking. The poor communication, jealousy and disregard of feelings explore the lack of maturity we had in our youth, despite thinking we knew best at the time. It cleverly takes a peek into what’s important to us when we’re young, and how we’ll disrespect our friends to get it. There’s also the lack of trust between the group, which is explored in multiple plot threads – Tara can’t tell her friends what happened that night on the beach, Badger can’t tell Paddy he doesn’t agree with his behaviors because of how he’ll take it, and Tara is too afraid to tell her friends her college grades through fear of judgment. This just shows that young friendships are often based on the wrong factors, and when it really comes down to it, are we surrounding ourselves we people we love, trust and want to be around?

How to Have Sex

From a film-making perspective, How to Have Sex is incredibly competent; all the technical aspects are there. It’s well shot, the camerawork remaining close and intimate with the characters. It’s full of life, color and high energy, particularly during those scenes set inside the club, showcasing how chaotic, energetic and non-stop these boozy weekenders can be. It doesn’t often hang around in its quiet moments for long, which replicates how our characters float from one party to the next, rarely stopping for rest. The soundtrack, full of modern dance anthems, is almost always thumping through the background, making the experience all the more immersive for viewers as we can’t escape the noise. As discussed, the performances are excellent, this wild cast of characters feels exactly like a crew we met on our girls/lads holiday in our youth. The film’s highest high is the script, which remains consistently engaging, incredibly important while balancing and exploring its themes with care, attention and depth.

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How to Have Sex is an incredible slice of realism highlighting the importance of consent, the difficulties of being a young woman and the amount of pressure that is put on young people, by other young people, to lose their virginity. It feels so naturalistic in its approach that you often forget you’re watching a movie, and as heartbreaking as it may be, the themes explored are relatable to so many of us and it hits the nail on the head when showing how the characters feel in the moment. Molly Manning Walker truly puts herself on the map with this one, proving she’s one to watch with a thought-provoking and vital piece of cinema. How to Have Sex is often hard to sit through due to what’s being explored, but it is excellent.

How to Have Sex
‘How To Have Sex’ Review: A Heartbreaking Yet Fantastic Study of Consent
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Becca Johnson

Becca is a Rotten Tomato-approved freelance critic from Essex, UK, with a penchant for horror and coming-of-age. She can mainly be found at Film Focus Online, where she is Senior Writer. She specialises in new release reviews, rankings and Top 10's.

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