How to Have Sex review: a murky, affecting coming of age

Molly Manning Walker's debut coming-of-age feature is a nuanced look at rites of passage and consent.

For older teens in the UK, US, and Australia, drinking, clubbing, and hooking up are storied rites of passage – memorialised in school holiday parties like Schoolies and Spring Break, and in the social media posts, booze bottle detritus, and massive hangovers that follow.

Not all teens will mark their entry into adulthood in this way – I was far too nerdy to get an invite – but those that do often walk away with one of two mindsets: it was either great, or it was the absolute worst.

Three British teenage girls go on such a holiday while awaiting their GCSE exam results in Molly Manning Walker’s sweaty, vibrant and discomforting film How to Have Sex. Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, How to Have Sex depicts the ecstasy, the confusion, and the distance that comes with the girls’ desperate need to fit in on what is supposed to be the ‘best holiday ever’.

Tara, Em and Skye are best friends. Having gone through high school together, they’re now celebrating the end of their secondary education in the beachside town of Malia, Crete, with many other likeminded teenagers and some older, university-age partygoers. In the opening scene on the beach, the girls goof around in the water and declare their love for one another, embracing closely in the freezing waters.

The lingering, awkwardly angled shots and muted sound design contribute to a powerful set up that tells us things are probably not going to work out as planned for the girls. They’re already shocked that the water is colder than they’d hoped, but still they plow on, driven by their adrenaline.

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Tara (played by Mia McKenna Bruce), the shortest and youngest of the group, is also the only one of them yet to lose her virginity – a shame that weighs on her and is lauded over her by the bossy Skye. The camera focuses on her as she is towered over by everyone: her friends, the potential hook-ups she meets, and almost everyone at the hotels, clubs, and beaches. Her smallness is an obvious physical reality, and it also works as a metaphor for her lack of power in all situations.

When Skye encourages Tara to have sex with Paddy, one of two older boys taking residence in the hotel room next to theirs, she considers it: after all, she feels the immense pressure to lose her virginity compounded with the desire to remain ‘one of the girls’. It doesn’t seem likely that she’ll pass her exams, and with her lack of sexual experience being brought up in a tense game of ‘Never Have I Ever’, she is beginning to feel more and more distant from Em and Skye.

Though she clearly prefers the blond-haired, neck-tattooed party boy Badger, Tara is pushed – figuratively and literally – towards his mate, Paddy. After two events, one being a drinking game in which she has to catch spilled beer from a bottle being balanced in Badger’s boardshorts, and another in which several women perform sexual acts on him onstage to stimulate an erection faster than other contestants, Tara rethinks her crush on Badger.

In both cases, she is separated from her friends, left alone in a sea of sweaty bodies to ponder her place in penis-shaped pools and thumping, pheromone filled clubs. A profound loneliness is communicated in close-ups of her worried, but ever hopeful face.

Soon, a murky application of consent (that I would definitely read as coerced) leads to a scary, confusing and disappointing first-time sexual experience for Tara. Once again she is left alone, completely alienated from the bacchanalian activities surrounding her, wandering the littered streets in her neon green dress and bikini at sunrise, wondering if her mates even really care about her. It’s a perfect example of why enthusiasm is a key component of sexual consent.

McKenna Bruce plays Tara with such nuance, conveying so many emotions and thoughts in just a twitch of the mouth or a shift of the eyes. In a story that is relatively simple with its message and morals, she brings a depth to it that really shines. In a few key scenes, she says nothing, but communicates everything in her expression. It’s stunning work.

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The friendship between Tara, Skye and Em in How to Have Sex is complicated, shifting from forever-bonded bosom buddies to fair-weather friends and, sometimes, bullies – and then back again. I found it to be pretty accurate in recreating what high school friendships are like: where the constant, individual need to fit in can threaten every promise ever made. Actresses Lara Peake (Skye) and Enva Lewis (Em) play the girls tone-perfect, with just the right balance of teen excitement, nonchalance and fiery outbursts.

How to Have Sex is 30-year-old Manning Walker’s feature debut, after making numerous short films and even DOP’ing on Charlotte Regan’s debut film Scrapper. It’s also already heavily awarded, with the Un Certain Regard prize mentioned above, and the European Discovery – Prix FIPRESCI at the 36th European Film Awards. It also received two nominations at the 77th British Academy Film Awards.

All well deserved, in my opinion, as it’s a cohesive, affecting and well-crafted film that will surely be remembered for a long time.

How to Have Sex is now in cinemas.


4 out of 5 stars


Mia McKenna–Bruce, Lara Peake, Samuel Bottomley, Shaun Thomas, Enva Lewis, Laura Ambler


Molly Manning Walker

Format: Movie

Country: UK, Greece, Belgium

Release: 07 March 2024

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports