Teen Girls’ Summer Break Takes a Dark Turn  

The three young British women at the center of Molly Manning Walker’s quiet and stunning debut How to Have Sex are ready for a good time. They’ve stuffed their luggage with neon bikinis, mesh shirts and bodycon dresses. They’re chugging water upon arriving in Malia, the Greek coastal town where they will spend the next week throwing back tequila shots, sipping on fishbowls of dubious alcohol concoctions and dancing atop bar tables.

What a marvelous trio Tara (Mia McKenna Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) make. There’s real love between these three teens, who have just graduated from high school and are anxious about the future. University is on the horizon, threatening the strength and sanctity of their dynamic. This pilgrimage — to party and have sex with as many people as possible — is both a celebration and an act of preservation. The stakes are high, although not in the way any of them might expect.

How to Have Sex

The Bottom Line

A quiet stunner.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Mia McKenna Bruce, Lara Peake, Shaun Thomas, Sam Bottomley, Enva Lewis, Laura Ambler
Director-screenwriter: Molly Manning Walker

1 hour 28 minutes

How to Have Sex opens on the beach, with a close and protective gaze. Cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni’s camera zooms in on the scene of Tara, Skye and Em teasing each other and splashing in the sea. The waves collapse on the sandy shore. The sun ascends, its rays bathing the trio in the golden light of daybreak. Their skins glisten. The natural chemistry between the performers adds to the spell cast by Manning Walker and Canniccioni. You want these friends to always love this shamelessly, to protect each other, to never change.

But you know things are bound to change — that’s the trick of life. The girls mosey over from the beach to their resort, ending a private moment and inaugurating a public one. Suddenly they are in the middle of a nonstop beach party, surrounded by dozens (if not hundreds) of other groups of young people. The scene they enter has the energy of a reality television show mixed with the youthfulness of Skins and the glow of Euphoria.

The girls end up making friends with an older set in the room next door. Tara and Badger (Shaun Thomas) meet first. He whistles at her from his balcony as she applies eyebrow liner on hers. She pretends not to hear him, but she can’t help but smile. It’s all very Romeo and Juliet, Skye later jokes.

Tara, Skye and Em quickly settle into a rhythm with Badger and his two friends, Paddy (Sam Bottomley) and Paige (Laura Ambler). They pregame in the room before hitting the bars, the pool or wherever the evening takes them. Tara, who is determined to lose her virginity on the trip, has her eye on one of the boys. They start to couple up, and here’s where the buzz wears off and the pain starts to hit.

How to Have Sex moves gently, smoothly gliding from inconsequential moments to monumental ones. Similar to Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’ heartbreaking Cannes debut last year, How to Have Sex lives in silences and beautifully observed moments: See how Skye undermines Tara and calls those hurtful jabs jokes? Notice the way Tara retreats into herself sometimes? And how Em tries to ride the middle of her two friends’ brief arguments?

You begin to piece together the pricklier parts of the trio’s dynamic. The challenges between these friends become a bigger problem when Tara loses her virginity; the rite of passage she so eagerly anticipated haunts her like a nightmare. McKenna Bruce delivers a powerful portrayal of a young woman grappling with the reality of her assault, dialing back Tara’s energy so that we can feel the character withdraw the more she remembers. The energetic party princess shrinks, turning into a reserved and nervous observer. The constant carousing around her starts to look different, too — it feels sinister, menacing.

Manning Walker does a fine job building a sense of dread and shifting tone without losing the story’s momentum. Tara’s silences hit differently as the week progresses. She’s always felt behind compared to her friends, and the weight of this experience only adds to her sense of isolation. There’s a haunting element to the latter half of How to Have Sex, which intelligently captures the difficulty of processing sexual assault, of navigating consent, of even starting a conversation. James Jacob’s score at first complements the disorienting, bass-heavy EDM soundtrack of the resort, but then becomes more subdued, allowing us to hear evidence of Tara’s silences: labored breathing, clothes rubbing against sheets as she curls herself into the fetal position.

Skye and Em struggle to understand their friend’s new disposition, and that’s when the dynamics from those earlier moments of observation return to us like clues. Skye’s mean cracks and flippant attitude land more harshly, Em’s curiosity and gentle prodding more softly. The friendship starts to look different, and as it becomes more complicated to parse, I wished there had been more for us to latch onto. Peake and Lewis are excellent as Skye and Em, respectively, but many of their actions (especially the way Skye treats Tara) lack clear motivation. A bit more transparency would have created a more organic connection between the beginning and the end of the story, sharpening the film’s focus. Because as Tara adjusts and tries to find new ways of settling into her body, it’s hard not to think of the way she, Skye and Em played in the ocean: laughing, splashing and hugging each other protectively.

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