‘How to Have Sex’ Review: This Paradise Is Nothing but Trouble

by The Technical Blogs

For all the hard-partying and forced euphoria onscreen, the movie “How to Have Sex” proves grim going. A vaporous coming-of-age story, it tracks Tara (a fine, sympathetic Mia McKenna-Bruce), who plays a 16-year-old British girl on a brief, booze-soaked getaway in Greece. There, amid crowds of other like-minded vacationers, she hangs with friends and strangers, hits the clubs, scarfs fast food, drinks and drinks some more, tossing back endless shots until she staggers into oblivion, only to rouse herself for another round of the same.

Tara and her supposed besties — Enva Lewis as the nice Em, Lara Peake as the not-so-nice Skye — have arrived in Malia, a resort town in Crete, fresh from their crucial secondary-school exams. They’ve come for a fly, flop and fornicate holiday, one of those excursions with sandy beaches, cheap hotels, nonstop beats and crowds of fit people who look and talk just like them. Giddy and super-stoked, the girls have come equipped with suitcases of beachwear, tubs of makeup and apparently superhuman livers. Tara is also hoping to lose her virginity, a familiar rite of passage that here turns into a blurry life lesson.

The writer-director Molly Manning Walker eases you in with shrieks and laughs, hovering camerawork and naturalistic scenes. Walker is a cinematographer making her feature directing debut and she’s keenly sensitive to the power of color; she uses a wide spectrum to set (and change) the mood, signify interiority and telegraph ideas. (The director of photography is Nicolas Canniccioni.) Kids being kids and often drunk — and because Manning Walker is loath to put words in their mouths — the characters rarely express themselves coherently. Instead, as the story unfolds, she plays with the palette, the inaugural velvety blue giving way to the sun’s white glare, blasts of Day-Glo green and washes of red.

The story begins taking shape once the girls meet three other young British tourists, including a guy named Badger (Shaun Thomas). From their nearby, amusingly portentous balconies, Tara and Badger trade shy looks and soon the two groups have joined forces. Complications ensue along with more rounds of clubbing and boozing and vomiting. Em pairs off with Paige (Laura Ambler), but Skye isn’t taken with the other circle’s third member, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). Instead, she keeps checking out Badger, an affable doe-eyed guy with a seemingly incongruent lipstick print tattooed on his neck right above the words “hot legends.”

Tara’s desire to sleep with someone gives her a quest; after a while, it also provides the movie with a slow drip of tension. Quick to laugh, she is a sweet girl with a nameplate necklace that reads “angel” and an open face that clouds with worry. She wants to hook up, but she’s also anxious about her grades and presumably what they might mean for her. McKenna-Bruce conveys the character’s vulnerabilities with graceful expressivity; she’s also shorter than the other main performers, which makes Tara look younger than her friends and worryingly defenseless; as the story continues, though, she also starts to seem like a sacrificial lamb.

In time, “How to Have Sex” goes exactly where you expect and fear it will, with a sexual assault that arrives at the midpoint, cleaving the story into distinct halves. It’s bleak, and it’s frustrating. Manning Walker sets the scene and stakes well enough, though after the millionth drink and shriek, whatever contact high you have is obliterated by a contact hangover. The largest problem, though, is that Manning Walker seems weirdly insensitive toward Tara, who endures a trauma that’s meant to say something about something — sex, consent, friendship — but mostly just gives the story some queasy heft. Like most of her characters, Manning Walker hangs out, gets her groove on and, after making a horrible mess, basically checks out.

How to Have Sex
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.

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