The term “teen movie” can seem like a pejorative. It sometimes gets thrown around like a genre, typically to describe movies made for teenage audiences (the implica-tion being that, for adults, mileage may drastically vary).
But there are also those works made for adults that, with hindsight, explore the challenges of teenage life. Some, like Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, are insightful classics. Others, like HBO’s Euphoria, are garish, stylized works of alarmism meant to scare us grownups about what “kids these days” are going through.
How to Have Sex, the debut feature by British writer-director Molly Manning Walker, falls somewhere between the two camps. Visually, its neon-drenched depiction of bacchanalia could be mistaken for Euphoria’s. But it’s a picture equally drenched in feeling, catharsis and wisdom about the pitfalls of youth.
The film follows a trio of 16-year-old English girls who have snuck their way into a spring-break party weekend in a resort on Crete where booze flows as freely as the revellers’ libidos. They’re determined to have the holiday of their lives and to get Tara (Mia McKenna Bruce), the lone virgin of the group, laid.
When they check into their hotel room, they find their next-door neighbours are also a trio of partygoers. Tara instantly has eyes for Badger (Shaun Thomas), a northern lad with bad taste in tattoos and worse taste in friends.
For its first act, How to Have Sex could almost be mistaken for a sex comedy. The dialogue is funny and authentic. But the naturalistic acting (all the performers are so good that it’s hard to pick a standout) and fly-on-the-wall camerawork give the whole affair an undercurrent of danger.
It’s appropriate – coming-of-age hedonism is often dangerous, and viewers will spend the early goings hoping that it doesn’t deliver on that nagging promise of danger. Inevitably, though, it does.
Without delving into spoilers, it’s safe to say that the party resort isn’t an environment that nurtures safety. This is fertile ground for sexual predation, and the film depicts this in a way that’s made all the more devastating by how matter-of-fact it all is. It’s not graphic, but it is explicit, disturbing and familiar. We all either have a story like this or know someone who does.
But it’s not just the sexual danger that Manning Walker gets right about teenage life. It’s all the little hostilities: the pressure to have sex, to have fun partying, to drink more than is humanly possible, to perform well in school and account for a future that’s impossible for you to imagine yet.
Tara’s friend Skye (Lara Peake) is horrible and passive aggressive toward her at every turn, but Tara’s still too naive to know that she doesn’t have to put up with it just because they’ve known each other since they were six.
How to Have Sex is full of little insights like this, and it gets them all across without seeming like it’s trying too hard.
Published in Volume 78, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 8, 2024)