How to Have Sex at the BFI LFF review: best holiday ever? God, let’s hope not

Mia McKenna-Bruce stars as Tara in How to Have Sex  (Mubi)
Mia McKenna-Bruce stars as Tara in How to Have Sex (Mubi)

This British rite-of-passage story may start off as an Inbetweeners-for-girls look at a sun, sand and sex holiday, but How to Have Sex, showing at the BFI London Film Festival, transforms into something much darker. Think Skins by way of Trainspotting.

Best friends Tara, Em and Skye are anxiously awaiting their GCSE results. To take their minds off things, they jet off on a boozy  trip to Malia in Crete – “best holiday ever!” they chant in the taxi  –  where Tara hopes to finally lose her virginity.

The girls – and they are girls, not yet quite women, despite being keen to pretend otherwise – use their teenage charm to blag a pool-view apartment and quickly befriend two older boys staying nearby. One of them, played by Shaun Thomas, is a dopey goofball with the disarming nickname of Badger (of course it’s tattooed across his midriff). The other, Paddy, played by Samuel Bottomley, is more conventionally attractive, but also more slippery and practised in his seduction methods.

Tara and Skye both have their eyes on him and as the alcohol and raging hormones start to take over, so does their inclination to competition.

29-year-old director Molly Manning Walker won the Un Certain Regard award at this year’s Cannes festival for this film, her debut as writer-director. She cut her teeth as a cinematographer (she shot Harris Dickinson’s summer hit Scrapper), and her deft use of the camera lifts what could have been a rather rote story of female friendship and the dangers of predatory men into something altogether more interesting. Nightclubs become prisons of people, sweat and debauchery; a bed sheet is a wall of defiance and loneliness means more than just being alone.

Mia McKenna Bruce as Tara and Lara Peake as Skye (Mubi)
Mia McKenna Bruce as Tara and Lara Peake as Skye (Mubi)

London-born Mia McKenna-Bruce, a standout in Netflix’s Persuasion as Mary Musgrove, is perfection as Tara. Her performance is just the right side of cocksure but the vulnerability and self-doubt coursing through her is always just below the surface. She just can’t let anyone see it, even when it makes things terrifyingly worse.

Walker deserves credit for not allowing How to Have Sex to descend into a full trauma spiral once things turn bad. There are some guardian angels in this world  –  even in Malia  –  but Tara still has to face her demons.

Walker’s script captures the sticky-drinks-and-suncream whiff of such ‘spring break’-type holidays, the coarse and aggressive language used by teenagers of that age (once they finally get off their phones). The shots of acrid vodka practically have your eyes watering as the group once again gears up for another boozy night out.

Despite the repeated drunken declarations of “I will love you forever” the central trio can’t escape the creeping feeling that their friendship hangs by a thread, as the shadow of GCSE results and different futures looms over them. This is an unsparing look at the realities of mixing puberty, alcohol and hazy ideas about sexual consent. Walker deftly deals with the complexities of teenage friendship, the desire for conformity and the ever-present fear, maybe more so than ever on a booze-soaked holiday, that everyone else is having more fun than you.

How to Have Sex doesn’t reinvent the coming-of-age formula, but thanks to Walker and McKenna-Bruce, and some strong supporting work from the whole cast, it doesn’t need to. It’s not about how to have sex, it’s about how sex – and crucially drunken, regretted consent – can damage you in ways that can’t be seen. And that ‘best holiday ever’ can instead become a holiday you’d rather forget. Except maybe you can’t.

How to Have Sex is released on November 3