How Not to Have Sex might be a more accurate title for writer and director Molly Manning Walker’s debut feature; this is a sobering and cautionary story about today’s teenagers, and something of an anomaly coming from Britain, a country which prefers not to make its own teen movies in favour of mass- consumption of the US model. That lack of willingness in the media to connect with young people has served the UK film community particularly badly over the years, but How To Have Sex has performed surprisingly well at the box-office, and seems to suggest that Walker might be one of the sainted few talents who are allowed to say anything relevant about where we are right now; it’s not anywhere good.
In a resort town on the Greek island of Crete, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and Skye (Lara Peake) are teenagers who await exam results from home while in a holding pattern that seems to involve getting as spangled as possible. Even when we see the girls happily frolicking in the sea, there’s a brief cut-away shot of a cigarette packet washing up on the beach to remind us that this isn’t an ad for getting-away-from-it-all vacations. When Tara’s mum leaves a terse message on her mobile discussing potential exam re-takes, Tara takes it as a reason to get even further mollicated, but she’d probably have done the same if the news had been good; celebrating success or failure doesn’t play that differently. Getting f*cked up is, as in many cultures, a rites of passage routine that’s sold to the young as a way of finding your true sense of self; we see Tara belting out The One And Only on a tacky street karaoke bar to an audience of no-one, her faith in her own exceptionalism undaunted by any kind of interfering reality. But these girls do look out for each other, just about, until, suddenly and abruptly, they don’t.
‘None of us are going to get laid if we just hang out with each other,’ is the pervasive thinking in Tara’s splintering group, and the juxtaposition of a group of wild boys over the adjacent hotel balcony provides an opportunity to add sex to the cocktail of booze and drugs which defines this transitory moment for Tara and her friends. Tara tries using jokes as a way of making conversation, but boys on holiday want something else, and as Tara watches a party drinking game that crosses the line, the mood darkens and How To Have Sex addresses serious issues about consent. How To Have Sex offers an alternative view to the Brits-on-holiday shenanigans popularised by the likes of The Inbetweeners. As a boy pours a drink for her, the way Skye holds herself, framed in an elegant, refined way, suggests that the girls would like to be seen differently, but the reality is Tara squatting between two dumpsters to urinate in the street, without stopping eating from a punnet of greasy chips as she does so. ‘We should go into business and just sell cheesy chips,’ says one of Tara’s friends cheerfully, but such youthful fancies of future good-times are swiftly derailed when Tara meets a persistent boy who doesn’t take no for an answer.
How To Have Sex doesn’t feature any nudity, and plays down the salacious details of a tabloid-style expose of yoof culture in favour of getting inside Tara’s head; she’s that girl easy to revile on a walk of shame, but in a culture where getting mashed is a badge of honour, Tara’s reasons for feeling ashamed are more complex that just her own self-destructive behaviour. How To Have Sex is a rare British film that accurately takes the temperature of today’s zest for excess; while not for everyone, viewers who understand what they’re getting into will likely be impressed with Walker’s ability to sensitively capture the upsetting nuances of this grim, disturbing story of girls gone wild.