review

How to Have Sex movie review: Vivid teen movie courses with awkward, triggering truths

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
How to Have Sex is in cinemas now.
How to Have Sex is in cinemas now. Credit: Nikos Nikolopoulos/AHI

With a title like How to Have Sex, you might expect a bawdy teen romp. Not Porky’s (never again Porky) but maybe American Pie.

How to Have Sex is neither of those movies. It’s naturalistic, thoughtful, and deeply, deeply uncomfortable because, over its tight 90 minutes, there are familiar behaviours that almost anyone will remember from their own adolescence — and wish they could forget.

Directed by British filmmaker Molly Manning Walker, the story follows Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), a 16-year-old girl on a wild weekend away with two friends Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake).

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They’re in the party town of Malia on the island of Crete and it is loose. Everywhere you turn, there are young people imbibing, dancing and sweating.

Tara is the only virgin of the group and the trip is marked as an opportunity for her to pop that cherry. Next door to their rented apartment is another group of friends: two lads, Badger (Shaun Thomas) and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), and a girl, Paige (Laura Ambler).

Tara is sweet on Badger but so is Skye, and the latter pushes her towards Paddy. After a day spent at a raucous — and, frankly, disgusting — party, Tara and Paddy hook up at the beach.

The act is thorny, challenging the limits of consent, enthusiastic or otherwise.

How to Have Sex is in cinemas now.
How to Have Sex is a familiar picture of young friendships. Credit: Nikos Nikolopoulos/AHI

Walker has previously said the title of the movie is not a handbook but an indictment of a culture that doesn’t prepare young people for good, consensual sex. Instead, they’re ingrained with the wrong expectations and practices of sexual encounters.

The beach party that preceded Paddy pressuring Tara into sex (“What are you so uptight for, I thought you were the fun one?”) was a big, loud event in which the host literally pushed a girl’s head down on a boy’s penis on stage, in a fellatio competition to see who could get “harder” faster.

The male host’s earlier clarion call was “If you’ve got a drink in your hands, down it”.

How to Have Sex doesn’t over-dramatise Tara’s all-too-common experience. It presents it as something that happened, has happened and will happen again.

McKenna-Bruce, who won the public-voted BAFTA rising star award, perfectly calibrates her performance as Tara, oscillating between moments of hurt as she tries to swallow her feelings over an experience she knows wasn’t right, and trying to convince herself that it was “fine”.

Tara tries to dance the thoughts away but they punctuate her mind anyway. At 152cm, McKenna-Bruce’s stature is a physical manifestation of Tara’s emotional vulnerability. Walker surrounds her with taller actors, towering over her.

How to Have Sex is in cinemas now.
How to Have Sex stars Mia McKenna-Bruce, who won a BAFTA rising star award this year. Credit: Nikos Nikolopoulos/AHI

Skye is an archetype of the bad friend, allowing her jealousy-fuelled passive-aggression and diminishing words to make Tara feel even worse about everything that went down.

But is it really Skye’s fault? When you pull back, it’s hard to condemn a 16-year-old for carelessness when so much of the culture around her has taught her that casual hook-ups are notches on the belt.

Every adult watching Skye would be triggered by something stupid they’ve said or done to a friend when they were teenagers, especially in heightened situations such as Schoolies, raves or festivals.

Or maybe you didn’t ask the right questions or weren’t there for a friend when, in retrospect, a situation didn’t feel right.

And Tara’s experience, down to her false bravado, would be all-too-relatable for many more.

Walker doesn’t shame Tara nor does she present her as a victim who will never be able to move on from this moment. And while Paddy, if anyone, is the antagonist in How to Have Sex, the real villain is a culture that doesn’t listen to women, prioritises men’s pleasure and underplays girls’ and women’s instincts.

It’s a vivid, intimate film coursing with truth about what it’s like to navigate that world.

Rating: 3.5/5

How to Have Sex is in cinemas now

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence Counselling Service 1800 RESPECT: www.1800respect.org.au

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