‘How to Have Sex’ Review: Molly Manning Walker’s Debut Makes a Hot Neon Splash Before Turning Chillingly Dark

·5-min read

Anyone seeking to describe “How to Have Sex” for potential American viewers is liable to land on the term “spring break” in the process: It is, after all, a story about hard-partying teenagers heading to a sunny coastal resort for several nights of boozy, horny, wholly unsupervised antics. Yet the teens here are British, the destination one of those grisly Mediterranean club hubs geared entirely toward British tourists, and the partying so distinctly British in its aims and etiquette that the translation hardly applies. The vacation presented here is as much like a quintessential spring break as Molly Manning Walker’s fresh, head-turning debut feature is like Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” — superficially similar in its pile-driving social chaos and eye-searing fluorescent visuals, but with a very different, damaged heart beating underneath it all.

“How to Have Sex” is equally likely to endure comparisons to Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun,” last year’s great British debut about regimented package-tour fun bringing out the latent melancholy of troubled holidaymakers — again, a reference point that captures some sense of the film’s brightly dilapidated milieu but not its very specific, vividly evoked anxieties. Here is a film for every 16-year-old still finding their real identity between their brash friend-squad front and the most diminishing taunts of their self-image, and for every older person who remembers that, and hasn’t the heart to tell them it may be an ongoing search. As for that teasing, cheeky-sounding title, it’s both ironic and instructive. Manning Walker’s film lays out the minefield of sexual education and consent for a post-#MeToo generation, with a precision to its ambiguities that will draw gasps from its characters’ contemporaries and elders alike.

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Before we get there, however, it’s all a hot, hormonal good time: You can practically smell the suntan lotion, flavored lipgloss and cheap spirits spilling from the bags of 16-year-old besties Tara (a sensational Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) as they roll (or more accurately stagger) into the Cretan resort town of Malia, heading for a giggly night swim before blagging themselves a poolside room at a self-catering hotel beset with hundreds of other whooping British students. School is over, exam results are imminent, and while Tara and Skye are pretty certain they’ve failed, the future is temporarily on hold. Their immediate objectives are limited to getting drunk and getting laid — with Tara, the bubbliest of the three but also the only virgin, feeling more pressure on the latter front than her pals.

Early signs are promising, with the room opposite theirs occupied by a compatible crowd of friendly hedonists. Among them are amiable doofus Badger (Shaun Thomas, a decade on from his wrenching childhood breakthrough in “The Selfish Giant”), who takes an early shine to Tara, and his cocksure friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) — the ladies’ man of the two, which in this social circle is merely to say his tattoos are marginally less regrettable and his name isn’t Badger. Tara has sweet, goofy chemistry with the less attractive lad, but it’s Paddy who’s presented as the prize: so much so that when he puts the moves on her, separating her from the crowd for a proposed beachside tryst, she feels almost obliged to accept.

What follows is a sex scene of astonishing, shiver-inducing detachment, on which the film’s whole giddy mood pivots. Paddy is careful to secure a cursory “yes” from Tara before proceeding, but you’d be hard pressed to watch the power dynamics at play here, or her inebriated out-of-body language, and declare the encounter wholly consensual. Where he can zip up and resume the night’s hijinks without skipping a beat, she’s cast into a strange, woozy state of isolation, in which everything from the booze to the budget-Ibiza delirium of Malia’s bar scene to her friends’ exhilarated, conspiratorial banter now looks, sounds, tastes and indeed hits a bit different.

A gifted cinematographer who most recently gave Sundance winner “Scrapper” its distinctive pastel-gritty look, Manning Walker opts for all-out visual and aural saturation to immerse viewers in a frenzied, teetering party-island atmosphere. Juddering, distorted sound design mixes and remixes with a relentless EDM soundtrack to dizzy effect. DP Nicolas Canniccioni’s camera charges bullishly through crowds at some points and gets swallowed in the swirl at others, pausing to gawp at flashing lights, burned onto the screen in all the colors of the glowstick rainbow. When we snap to hard, bleached morning light at one point, with the main strip as empty and desecrated as a Western ghost town, it’s as if we’ve woken up in another dimension, with a crushing hangover to boot.

In what should be a star-making performance, McKenna-Bruce makes plain Tara’s interior pain and confusion, but colored with all manner of complicating secondary feelings: the relief that she’s finally done it, the dawning sense that it probably shouldn’t have been done that way, the hollowing fear that maybe that’s simply how it is. These waves of awareness twitch across her soft, glitter-spangled face as she once again attempts to gather her messy feelings, set them aside, and party on: an under-examined variety of the stiff upper lip, slicked in sparkly pink. “How to Have Sex” resists much of the obvious confrontation and catharsis you’d expect in movies of this type, instead trading in the thwarted impulses and micro-reactions of real life, and it’s all the more devastating for it.

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