When asked why he called his novel How to Be Good, novelist Nick Hornby replied because having “how” in the title boosts sales significantly. We’re all looking for guidebooks, even when we read novels or see films. The world is a scary and confusing place, and we need someone to show us the way.
It is never scarier than when we start to swim in the shoals of our first sexual experience. Not for nothing was being on the pull called “sharking” down our way. Molly Manning Walker’s debut film How to Have Sex offers a canny promise of guidance, even though we know it will likely not be fulfilled.
Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) has just finished her GCSEs and is on holiday with her two BFFs, brainy Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake). Already on their plane, the exuberance is turned up to eleven and when they hit their resort hotel in Malia, Crete, there are some pre shots and the three are staggering off to clubs the colour of cocktails where EDM will pound until dawn. Initially, we are plunged into a hedonistic barrage of drinking, smoking, and puking that looks like cirrhosis can’t be long in coming, but the resilience of youth is a wonderful thing and soon they’re back up and at it, having ganged up with a neighbouring bunch which includes the sweet but dumb Badger (Shaun Thomas) and the wilier Paddy (Samuel Bottomley).
As Tara looks to lose her virginity, the stage is set for a British version of Blockers or any number of American teen comedies. A familiar will she or won’t she structure hovers around her choice between Badger and Paddy. But she is influenced by the drugs and booze, and the culture of frenzied hedonism with explicit sex games encouraged by resort organizers. Her friends also prove themselves unreliable, with Skye particularly self-serving in her advice. What should be fun – the sun, sexiness, and music – begins to seem like a hallucinatory nightmare. Tara’s first time turns into a traumatic ordeal which sends her into a state of complete alienation from everyone around her, even as she tries to keep up her good time girl brio.
Molly Manning Walker’s first film is an exciting, powerful, and incredibly assured drama. The performances are across the board excellent, and McKenna-Bruce holds the screen with her mix of vulnerability and brash good time girl bravado. There’s a heroism to her that means, even at her darkest moments, we can detect she won’t be destroyed. The obvious comparison will be with Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, which premiered here last year. What is it with the British and their desperate urge to escape Britain? But Walker focuses on a girl alone, very much alone, and the dangers around her. This isn’t a film about sexual assault as a rare aberration, but about a culture which collectively diminishes any notion of consent and encourages a rush to experience.
As with almost every bad idea in Britain today, the spring break carnival of letting loose is a US import. Sex becomes a box ticking exercise, aided by psychotic levels of intoxication, and choreographed by Pornhub. And before this reviewer is accused of being a killjoy, allow him to point out this kind of shit is the opposite of sex positivity and underneath it there is a paradoxical puritanism which doesn’t want to deal with sex while sober. The answer of How to Have Sex is obviously “not like this”.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty