‘How to Have Sex’ Puts Unflinching Focus On a Frighteningly Familiar Story

With every twist and turn of Molly Manning Walker's directorial debut, a one-night-stand or drunken exploit gone unexamined becomes that much clearer.

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‘How to Have Sex’ Puts Unflinching Focus On a Frighteningly Familiar Story

One night in my early twenties, I went out drinking with new friends and woke up alone in the hospital. My belongings—a phone and a small purse—were placed in a ziplock bag at the foot of the bed and the clothes on my back were caked in calcified vomit. Hours earlier, I’d been denied entry to a party on a yacht because I was too inebriated to stand. The friends went on without me and as the boat departed from the dock, I fell in the parking lot. A concerned bystander called an ambulance.

I only asked one question when I came to at the hospital: “Was I sexually assaulted?” The answer was no. Still, I blamed myself for my indiscretion. Then, as penance, I fashioned the story into an amusing anecdote to be told at parties. “Next thing I know, I wake up and a nurse in Looney Tune scrubs is telling me I owe over a thousand dollars for an ambulance I didn’t even call,” I’d ramp up, laughing along with my audience as if we were all in on the same joke. The punchline: I guess a handle of Tito’s isn’t actually that cheap! With retrospect and strikingly similar revelations from friends, it seems as if this is part and parcel of a young woman’s experience. Reckoning with the fact that our pursuit of liberation is often accompanied by a steep price–and our own arguably undeserved remorse–is done on nights like these. Molly Manning Walker’s directorial debut, How to Have Sex, brings them into unflinching focus.

Though it may seem like one at first glance, How to Have Sex isn’t a cautionary tale. Instead, it’s a scathing indictment of a sex-obsessed society that still has no concept of what consent truly is—or isn’t. Even more so though, the film functions as a kaleidoscope of your own blurred memories—with every twist and turn, a one-night-stand, drunken exploit, or another memory from a youth gone unexamined becomes that much clearer. Manning Walker, who also wrote the film, took inspiration from the holidays of her own teen years wherein she and her friends engaged in excess only to realize as adults that they had internalized trauma from things they’d seen too young and weren’t equipped to process. “We all recognized that we were uncomfortable but were pretending to be like, ‘whoop this is so great!’” Manning Walker recalled at a recent screening in New York.

The film opens as three British 16-year-olds—fresh off their secondary school exams—fling themselves onto the shores of Malia, drunk only on freedom, friendship, and fledgling adulthood. When, hours later, they’re literally drunk on the kind of concoctions that practically reek through the screen, it’s the viewers who are plunged beneath the surface of the three’s dynamic. In short: Em (Enva Lewis) is sweet, Skye (Lara Peake) is not, and Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is plagued by her virginity. And the former’s taunts about it.

The girls spend the first night together—holding each other’s hair back from the toilet bowl, stealing the other’s fries, and staggering home through stone-laden streets. Em and Skye want to get laid and Tara hopes to have sex for the first time…or does she? Walker deftly ensures the viewer is never quite certain what Tara cares about more: experiencing sex for others’ sake or her own. Like any girl of that age, it’s quite likely that Tara isn’t so sure herself. Quickly, their hotel becomes a pressure cooker. It seems everywhere Tara looks people her age are experiencing the one thing she hasn’t. And that she has yet to partake makes her an oddity; the other. What could be more terrifying to a teenage girl? One night, in a shattering turn of events, Tara learns.

Such is where How to Have Sex transcends any other in the coming-of-age genre and becomes that of a horror movie. Other getaway-anchored, coming-of-age (Spring Breakers or Bodies Bodies Bodies, perhaps) films empower their protagonists to relish in all the wrong–and occasionally, right–things. That’s not to say their actions aren’t without recourse, but everything about Tara–from the “angel” chain around her neck to her innate goodness–feels like a signal to viewers that she never actually stood a chance on this trip.

As Tara, McKenna-Bruce delivers a searing, fully realized performance. You’ve either been her, known her, or some variation of both. The ensemble cast, too, quite eerily evokes either the best—or worst—drinking buddies from your youth. Some, you’d happily share your fries with. Others, you’d outright refuse even a soggy cigarette. Figuring out who’s worthy of what, I’d argue, can be as traumatic an exercise in the human experience as cramming into a cheap hotel room on holiday with an assemblage of sweaty, saronged hedonists. Tara does her best. In fairness, it’s a feat even for the viewer. Sure, Em extends the most care to Tara throughout the film—but she also doesn’t care much about her absence for a significant part of it.

Even as the audience sees exactly where this story is going, the film’s climax still manages to be jarring. When I attended a screening, the theater of mostly women actually audibly gasped at more than one scene. In the aftermath, the polychromatic strobes are suddenly glaring; the throbbing bass now reverberates in all the wrong ways; the beach is no longer a sacred space. If you’ve ever found yourself lost in a club and longing for the comforts of home, you know just the sensory overload. When the music stops and the sun rises, Tara is forever changed.

As she boards the plane bound for home, it’s difficult to imagine how what just happened to Tara could ever be reduced to a party anecdote of her own. Then again, you could have said the same of me on the long cab ride from the hospital back to my apartment.

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