Girls Gone Wild Gone Wrong: How to Have Sex Features a Standout Lead Performance

Movies Reviews Cannes Film Festival
Girls Gone Wild Gone Wrong: How to Have Sex Features a Standout Lead Performance

According to the laws of physics, whenever there’s a group of three teen besties, there’s always going to be imbalances, no matter how tight they seem. Add to the equation ungodly amounts of alcohol, older guys with bad intentions and zero sleep, and those imbalances will no doubt deepen. Case in point, in How to Have Sex, British babes Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake) travel to the Greek island of Malia for what the girls prematurely declare the “best holiday ever.” Tara is the funny, adventurous one; Em is the smart, practical one who planned the whole trip; Skye is the “experienced” naughty girl with mommy issues. It doesn’t take long for a group of older guys to come sniffing around their hotel room balcony, and soon they’re one big party family.

Nor does it take long for Skye to reveal herself to be a snake, more than happy to throw Tara under the bus for scraps of male attention. Skye seems to thrive on Tara’s self-doubt and looks at Tara the way a predator looks at prey before going in for the kill. Tara is insecure about being a V-card carrier, and Skye throws this in her face “as a joke” in front of the guys; the fun-loving female solidarity between the three girls from their first night has vanished, replaced with a bitter, one-sided competition between Skye and Tara. Tara tries to ignore it, while Em is blissfully oblivious to it, having already found a holiday hook-up of her own.

Tara’s main goal for the trip is to lose her virginity, which to her seems impossible, but it isn’t a difficult goal, really; she’s a pretty, charming blonde who likes to have fun, and lots of it. She has her sights set on Badger (Sean Thomas). He is genuinely sweet to Tara and they have great chemistry, but her friends tell her he’s too goofy. 

The way Badger’s childhood best friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) looks at Tara will instantly make your blood run cold. We’ve seen this story before. We know where this is headed, but Tara doesn’t. She likes the attention from Paddy, but something’s not quite right, and things move much too quickly in Teen Party Land for her to have time to figure out what it is. She’s not old enough to have a proper gut to listen to yet. When Paddy finally corners Tara alone on the beach for sex, she says yes with her words, but her body language clearly says no. Any decent human being could see that she’s uncomfortable, but Paddy doesn’t care, and he takes what he wants. 

For a first-time director, Molly Manning Walker hit an absolute home run with her actors; McKenna-Bruce’s performance stands out, but Peake and Thomas are worth noting as well. Something in Peake’s ever-shifting expression is reminiscent of a Riley Keough character—you know you can’t trust her, but you really wish that you could. She’s charismatic on the outside, but something inside her grew rotten at a young age due to growing up too fast. On the flip side of that coin, Thomas plays Badger as a guy you couldn’t bring home to your parents (neck tattoos, one too many dirty jokes, devious glint in his eye), but wish you could (heart of gold). Since these are all relatively fresh faces, their pro-level acting chops must be partially attributed to Walker’s insightful direction. 

What could have easily been a rote, didactic PSA about consent and sexual assault is graced with nuance by a superb breakout performance from McKenna-Bruce. McKenna-Bruce brings so much textured humanity to a lead role that, in the hands of a lesser actress, might have been fumbled into mediocrity. McKenna-Bruce shrouds Tara’s innocence with her street smarts and her jokes—buries her insecurities in an infectiously bubbly personality. Her ability to communicate Tara’s inner life with just her eyes is frighteningly good, and without it, How to Have Sex wouldn’t be half as good. I was surprised to find out her largest credit to date was a role in Netflix’s laughable Persuasion adaptation, but pleased that her talents are finally being put to good use.

“Help me” Tara’s eyes say, “I didn’t have fun last night with Paddy, don’t leave me alone with him.” They plead, but no one, not even her two best mates, are listening. Her body language is visibly much more tense, and she stops going out, but Tara is held back from asking for help by social barriers that forbid sharing any discomfort, or even suffering, because it harshes the vibe for everyone else. A good alternate title for How to Have Sex would have been How to Bury Your Pain to Keep the Party Going. Even if you aren’t a victim of sexual assault, suffering in silence to keep others happy is a universal experience. 

However, I had higher expectations for the photography, considering Walker’s background in cinematography (she photographed this year’s Sundance pick Scrapper). What could have been Spring Breakers or Euphoria or even Skins (which the characters would definitely love), was instead much less stimulating to watch. The partying scenes resemble run-of-the-mill concert footage. The most memorable shot in the film is a wide overhead shot of a swimming pool shaped like a penis, perhaps to indicate the stranglehold the patriarchy has over us in every area of public life.

It’s a powerful experience, but that’s about as deep as How to Have Sex is willing to go. While a more complex piece like Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You constantly develops into something new, surprising us at every turn, How to Have Sex unfolds predictably, with little change to the characters. All three girls leave the film the same way they entered it, whooping and hollering happily. Not too much has changed. The sexual politics are good, and the film is competently made, but aside from McKenna-Bruce’s performance, it’s a standard, morally direct tale about the dangers of toxic party culture.

Director: Molly Manning Walker
Writer: Molly Manning Walker
Starring: Mia McKenna-Bruce, Eva Lewis, Lara Peake, Shaun Thomas, Samuel Bottomley
Release Date: May 20, 2023 (Cannes)

Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.

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