How to Have Sex (2023)

Haziness of consent at the heart of ‘Sex’

“How to Have Sex” rides into town on a tsunami of hype generated by last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it captured the Un Certain Regard for its highly original take on the minefield that is teenage sexuality. And much of the puffery surrounding Molly Manning Walker’s writing-directing debut is warranted, from her film’s gritty feel to the star-making turn she coaxes from Mia McKenna-Bruce as an exuberant, naive adolescent determined to lose her virginity. But as much as I admired Walker’s audacity and originality, I was largely immune to the movie’s overblown fervor.

The stumbling block is the very thing garnering the hosannas – authenticity. Much of the movie’s front half reeks of calculation and manipulation, beginning with the unlikely premise that three 16-year-old British besties would find themselves unchaperoned at a Crete resort masquerading as Fort Lauderdale during spring break. The booze is plentiful and the bathing suits minimal. Lust and desire permeate the air. It’s an atmosphere I contend would have most 16-year-olds quaking in their sandals.

Not so for McKenna-Bruce’s Tara and her much more experienced gal pals, Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), behaving like horny sailors on leave. And what are the odds the yin and yang of predatory young men, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Badger (Shaun Thomas), just happen to be staying in the adjacent hotel room? Although the two hunks are most assuredly “fit,” as the girls like to say, they have “trouble” written all over them. Their leering eyes are testament, and those piercing peepers are pointed directly at Tara. It’s as though they possess some sort of virgin radar.

What ensues is very much akin to a couple of wolves circling a defenseless deer. And the more ruthless of the two will move in for the kill. This comes as no surprise. What stuns is Walker’s waiting so long to get to the point, which is the PTSD overwhelming Tara after allowing herself to be used and invaded by a borderline rapist.

Once there, “How to Have Sex” finally hits its stride. But it’s not so much Walker’s writing as it is McKenna-Bruce’s staggering, dialogue-free portrayal of a young woman with a severe case of postcoital trauma. And like countless other adolescents, Tara blames herself for what’s occurred.

From here to the film’s pitch-perfect ending, McKenna-Bruce mesmerizes with her take on the zombification of a once bubbly teen, now muted by the stark realities of how the promise of pleasure can quickly descend into an unshakable nightmare. I’m sure many women can attest, but never has this debasement been so hauntingly depicted on screen.

That’s all McKenna-Bruce. And she does it almost entirely with her expressive eyes and defeated posture. All Tara wants is to curl up in the fetal position in her fleabag hotel bed. But even there, she’s not safe. And it’s that scene that lands with a wallop. You won’t soon forget it. It’s very much in contrast to the first hour of “How to Have Sex,” which will have faded from memory before you leave the theater. But, boy, those last 30 or 40 minutes sure are captivating. They leave you rattled and much more cognizant of the meaning of #MeToo. It’s not sex; it’s violence. And, as Walker makes clear, it must end – now.

Movie review

How to Have Sex

Rated: Not rated

Cast: Mia McKenna-Bruce, Samuel Bottomley, Shaun Thomas, Lara Peake and Enva Lewis

Director: Molly Manning Walker

Writer: Molly Manning Walker

Runtime: 98 minutes

Where: In theaters

Grade: B

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