‘How to Have Sex’ Captures the Joy and Horror of Being Sixteen

Content warning: How to Have Sex and this review touches on the subjects of sexual assault. Please approach both with caution if this topic is triggering for you. 

I heard very little about Molly Manning Walker’s debut film, How to Have Sex, so I went into it without many preconceptions. What I got was a powerful film about being young, about consent, and about why so many women are unclear about whether or not they were victims of sexual assault.

The movie follows three high school students and best friends: Em (Enva Lewis), Skye (Lara Peake), and Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce). They are on their first holiday without their parents and are excited to be on their own with plans to drink, party, and get laid. Tara is the only girl in the group who is still a virgin, and they all have plans to help her end that part of her life. Things look promising with a young man named Badger (Shaun Thomas), but when he participates in a lewd game and Tara ends up separated from the rest of her group, his shady friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) comes along and takes advantage of that. 

How to Have Sex stirs up nostalgia for the innocence of youth

The opening of this movie does indeed stir up some nostalgia for the innocence of youth. The excitement over a crappy hotel room. The thrill of deciding what your days will look like without parental oversight—the feeling of being with your best friends and exploring the larger world. Watching the first half hour really did make me long for those days when these kinds of experiences were something to be celebrated rather than just the humdrum of the daily grind. I loved the way that the film captures that level of wonder at the circumstances that most of us don’t think about once we reach adulthood.

But the tone shifts about a half hour in, and those of us who are older can remember why we become jaded about these moments. Because while there is a level of excitement and thrill, they can also be cruel and frightening. The subtle ways that we can begin to lose ourselves to the will of others. Sometimes, it’s the friend who uses knowledge about you to cause harm. Sometimes, it’s the wearing down of no’s to get a single yes at the time you least want to give it and then using that yes as carte blanche to do whatever they want. Sometimes, it’s the friend who is sympathetic and responds with exactly the wrong words. Regardless of the situation, this movie captures both the joy and the horror of being sixteen.

The performances from this young cast are all stellar. Peake captures the essence of the pushy, jealous friend brilliantly. You can feel the contempt every time she says that a hurtful statement is “just a joke.” Thomas’s Badger straddles the line between skeevy and sweet with a deft hand. Bottomley plays an odious character, and despite his youth, it never feels like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas in How to Have Sex. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.
Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas in How to Have Sex. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

Mia McKenna-Bruce gives a star making performance in How to Have Sex

But this move belongs to Mia McKenna-Bruce. She gives a stunning performance as Tara, and I hope this propels her into stardom. Her ability to hold all of the joy, pain, excitement, and fear of being 16 is stunning, and this movie would be worth seeing for her performance alone. In one of my favorite scenes, we see her dancing right on the edge of a different group of friends – both in and out of the group and her expressions capture that experience exquisitely.

The performances are built with the foundation of a near-perfect script. While this How to Have Sex is shot in an obviously cinematic way, it almost feels like it could be a documentary of a young woman’s sexual assault, with how real it all feels. The rape scenes aren’t graphic in terms of what is shown, but watching Paddy violate one “no” after another until he finally gets the one “yeah” that allows him to go forward is deeply upsetting.

Despite the horror, the movie ends with a joyful moment

But as viscerally unpleasant as that is, How to Have Sex still manages to end with a joyful moment. Not in a way that minimizes Tara’s experience but in a way that shows that no single event can define her. So often, when we speak about victims of rape and sexual assault, the focus is on that one occurrence because it is such an awful, life-altering moment. How to Have Sex never treats Tara’s assault as inconsequential, but it also doesn’t treat her as someone who needs our pity. 

Often, when we think of the “strong female character,” we think of someone like Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. Someone who has all of the traits of a man wrapped in a female body. How to Have Sex reminds us that sometimes a strong female character is a 16-year-old girl running toward her next adventure with her hands in the air and a shout of excitement on her lips. 

How to Have Sex is now in theaters.

Have you watched How to Have Sex yet? What did you think? Connect with us on X @MoviesWeTexted to let us know your thoughts.

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