Spending time with the main characters of How to Have Sex is like being trapped in a lift with the most obnoxious drunk people you’ve ever met. On holiday in an unnamed European party city, they do their level best to annoy the shit out of us. They make several requests for a hotel room with a pool view, thinking their next attempt might have just the right method of convincing the clerk, even though they’ve approached the desk with a mouth full of food. They randomly sweep impulse buys from the shelves of the local convenience store, so indiscriminately that you wouldn’t be surprised if they came away with a bag of fertiliser. They stumble and snarf cheesy chips in clothes that are barely there after the bar has already kicked them out for the night. You silently celebrate the sense of justice when it becomes clear, later on, that they did not actually get that room with the cherished pool view.


This is just the first 20 minutes, and there is a secret plan to what writer-director Molly Manning Walker is doing. This is very much a first impression of these three girls – yes, they’re just girls, as they are talking about test scores and how that will affect next year’s plans, which suggests this is the British equivalent of schoolies. It’s the kind of first impression you would get if, yes, you were trapped in a lift with them for two minutes, and saw only the vulgarly oblivious, chaotic messes they wanted to present to the world.

There’s a story underneath this, though, and it may just be the story of any three girls at a pivot point in their lives, on a trip where they claim they have no intention of sleeping. As Walker shows us scene after scene of bacchanalian hedonism, we get the impression that if we instead zoomed in on three different girls, you’d be getting some variation on the low-key drama that unfolds here – and perhaps the same could be said of any three boys, though it might be a slightly different brand of drama.

The excited, recently deplaned tourists falling all over themselves in glee are Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis). You can tell they’ve been mates for a while since they dance in sync to the same recent pop hit and have a shorthand for communication that’s laced with an affected British slang that may be borrowed from a different social class. We learn only through little mentions that they are blowing off steam before finding out the exam results that will determine where they go next year. For now, all that matters is drinking as much and smoking as many cigarettes as humanly possible, and of course getting laid. They’ll have some prospects in common in that regard, but some not in common, as Em is queer.

Fortunately for Em, their neighbours, on another non-pool-facing balcony, include one potential match for her in Paige (Laura Ambler), and her two frisky male heterosexual roommates, Badger (Shaun Thomas) and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley, who plays what we might call the Barry Keoghan role). Tara catches Badger’s eye, and vice versa, though he might be too much of a gentleman to make a move. Not a problem for Paddy, and complicating matters is the secret her frenemy Skye is only too eager to expose after a loose-lipped drinking game: Tara is a virgin.


A movie like How to Have Sex couldn’t linger long in its opening mode, as that wouldn’t present much of a story and we’d be way too annoyed. When it inevitably becomes more sober – in this one respect only – it does so without going to someplace too deep and too dark and too on-the-nose. Gross stuff is going to happen here, but it will mostly fall into the category of callous abuses of grey areas, more than the sort of material you’d find in a cautionary documentary about the dangers of schoolies.

And that very much seems to be Walker’s point. Although some true connections might be forged in an environment like this, more likely is that the exchanges are empty and hollow, characters doing what they think they’re supposed to do because they’re supposed to do it. In the meantime, the finer points of a vulnerable person’s inner emotional state are trammelled. As that vulnerable person, McKenna-Bruce really takes us on a journey from being irritated by her shenanigans to feeling the depth of her soul.


If you were trying to extract a clear message from How to Have Sex, you might be watching the wrong movie. Some of the guys are bad here, but some are not. Some of the women have an indefensible grudge and desire to see their friends in pain, but some are good friends. Underscoring it all, though, is the fact that much of this is inferred through little moments, where characters almost say the thing they should have said, almost call out the party fouls they see around them. In real life, these moments get missed, and after the fact, you look back on the whole experience as a flawed failure to live up to your expectations rather than the brilliant party you were told it should be.


This is the first feature for veteran cinematographer Walker, and you can see her experience behind the camera in the scenes of the parties, which occasionally achieve something in the neighbourhood of what Harmony Korine achieved with his masterpiece Spring Breakers. How to Have Sex does have a more clear perspective on what it all means than that film did, which was a feature not a bug in that case. But by leaving it mostly with us, Walker has both complimented our intelligence, and given us a good preview of what we might expect in her follow-up efforts.


How to Have Sex opened yesterday in cinemas.

7 / 10