It’s the summer before college and celebrations are at a high—as they anxiously await their exam results and the supposed be-all-end-all outcome of their futures, three British teenage girls take off to Malia for a summer of parties, pitchers, sunshine and, most importantly, sex. The three girls are Tara, Skye, and Em, arriving in Greece with intentions to live it up before they go their separate ways for uni, with underage Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) desperate to lose her virginity before the trip’s end.
It’s a premise you will have seen in different shapes and sizes before, though director Molly Manning Walker’s take on the coming-of-age drama is laced with potent social commentary and a fresh perspective that largely stems from her pin-point understanding of the “rites-of-passage” party holiday and the various social pressures that run through the DNA of British drinking culture. In How To Have Sex you’ll recognise all the staples of a typical British youth summer on the strip: oversized pitchers, sweaty raves, a liquor store’s worth of shots being thrown back at breakneck speed, hangover pot noodles, cheesy chips, and…deep fried fags? This is far from the sun-kissed glamour of the American spring break, nor is there any sign of the Greek setting’s rich culture—instead, Walker’s focus is on dirty strips, pounding nightclubs, and cluttered terraces, uncovering an authenticity that feels deeply familiar.
The key to making How To Have Sex a quality drama and not just a feature-length episode of What Happens In Sunny Beach isn’t all in the accuracy of its narrative, though, but in lead actress Mia McKenna-Bruce’s vulnerable performance as Tara, whose insecurities regarding her lack of sexual experience slowly unravel her free-spirited party rocker persona with each blurry round of tequila.
McKenna-Bruce brings layers to a character whose sense of self is crumbling around her; her friends, as close as they are to her, seem to be moving on to bright futures, while she remains unsure of her place in the world; she likes Badger, the goofy but kind-natured lad next door, but becomes the sexual conquest of his best friend, the charismatic Paddy. It’s around here where How To Have Sex states its true intentions, and the film suddenly becomes a dark lesson on the fine line between consent and sexual assault that Walker, in her impressive debut, probes with a critical eye and sensitivity for her young female protagonist, even if her arc, and the film, comes to an all-too-neat of an end.