A woman at a party stares into the distance.

Sundance Film Review: How to Have Sex

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: How to Have Sex
Director: Molly Manning Walker

British Film Institute, Heretic Films
Sundance Premiere: 01.19

Molly Manning Walker’s loosely autobiographical directorial debut is not a tutorial on how to have sex, nor is it—as some have suggested—a warning about how not to have sex. Rather, it’s a shockingly realistic portrayal of how young girls are first introduced to the trap of sexual hedonism and the relationship between social pressure and blurry consent; a deeply uncomfortable but necessary addition to the indie, coming-of-age canon. 

The first third of How to Have Sex sets itself up like a British Spring Breakers, following 16-year-old best friends Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, The Dumping Ground, Persuasion), Skye (Lara Peake, Born to Kill, Mood) and Em (Enva Lewis) on a whirlwind post-finals vacation in Malia, a famed party town on the Greek island of Crete. 

The naturalistic dialogue shows just how well Walker understands teen vernacular, making the audience momentarily forget it’s not a documentary—even for those who don’t understand British slang words like “fit,” “knackered” and “jokes” (used as an adjective). Cheeky moments such as an aerial shot of the hotel’s phallus-shaped pool and an attempt to salvage wet cigarettes by frying them in a pan make the final third of the film feel like a brutal rug-pull. 

McKenna-Bruce gives an outstanding performance as the runt of the litter, whose less-than-perfect grades and sexual innocence make her feel like she’s got everything to prove and an awful lot of catching up to do. It doesn’t help that Skye, a snarky, boy-obsessed know-it-all keeps teasing her about being a virgin, and that Em, the straight-A lesbian of the group, is too preoccupied with partying to see the pain Tara is in. It doesn’t matter that Badger (Shaun Thomas), the older hottie that the girls befriend, is a “nice guy” compared to his slimy mate Paddy (Samuel Bottomley)—he’s also blithely oblivious to the combination of drinking, peer pressure and straight-up assault that pushes Tara to a breaking point. 

The party sequences are gorgeously composed; Walker’s previous filmmaking experience as a cinematographer (and most recently as the director of photography on Scrapper, which premiered at Sundance in 2023) makes for a mesmerizing watch, and I was unsurprised to learn that she storyboarded the whole film from start to finish. As the girls’ “best holiday ever” devolves into stomach-churning social horror, the pounding bass of the club is interrupted by muted moments where Tara’s anxious breathing and ringing ears drown out everything else in an incredible triumph of seamless sound mixing. 

My only complaint about the film is how the queer storyline with Em and her new lover Paige (Lara Ambler) is ultimately underdeveloped and sidelined, existing only to show a silly, problem-free romance in contrast to Tara’s harrowing experience. During the post-film Q&A, Walker revealed that “really late in the process we’d [decided to] put a queer couple in,” so the filmmaking team searched for Bradford lesbians and cast the first girl who auditioned. 

Despite that note, it’s often difficult for visual media to capture the feeling of pretending to have the time of your life when you’re actually nauseatingly distressed and shaken to your core—the only other effective example that comes to mind is Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, and How to Have Sex pulls off the same feat with incredible ease while tackling an even heavier subject matter. It’s a film that I will probably never watch again because of how hard it hit home, but one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. –Asha Pruitt

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.