How To Have Sex

MA 15+, 91 minutes

Four Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

If a sense of déjà vu begins to develop as the best holiday ever descends into the worst nightmare, this rite of passage story takes shape as a counter-narrative. How To Have Sex charts the course of a young woman on a schoolies binge holiday at a Mediterranean resort, then invites us to see the experience very differently. It is a powerful experience.

Young English writer-director Molly Manning Walker planned it this way, with two contrasting halves. Many scenes during the second half take place in the locations that appeared in the first half, but with people trashing things, where rubbish is strewn around the laneway, where the apartments have become messier, and there are fights going on. The world on a summer vacation that was to be the last word in summer hols with raves and hook ups non-stop, is suddenly grittier, darker and noticeably a lot meaner.

The narrative arc falls a little short of a synthesis of events and experiences that a third part would provide. Yet at the same time, the future for Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the diminutive lead character, is left open for us to fill in, as imagined. Or hoped for.

Tara is a strong young woman, even though we have a contrary impression. Perhaps it is because of her heart-shaped face, the necklace she wears that spells ‘angel’, and the fact that she is tiny alongside her lanky friends. Even in her plunging, lime-green party outfit she seems to radiate vulnerability. Crucially, she is the only virgin among the trio of schoolfriends who take off for the beach and clubbing scene at Malia, Crete, to while away the time as they await their GCSE results.

The location may be Greece, but the schoolie context conjures up Bali, and the Gold Coast, or wherever school leavers go now.  The filmmakers engaged hundreds of extras between the ages of 16 and 21 who looked British for the crowd scenes. One can only imagine.

From inside the apartment that Tara shares with besties, Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), there is a view of the penile-shaped pool. The best bedroom will be allocated to the one who gets laid the most.

From pool parties in slo-mo to the frenetic dance floor, the feeling of immersion is compelling

From pool parties in slo-mo to the frenetic dance floor, the rave scenes are terrifically well directed, shot and edited. We wouldn’t expect less from award-winning Manning Walking whose filmography contains a long list of shorts and music videos for which she was cinematographer. The feeling of immersion these scenes create is compelling. Nicolas Canniccioni was on camera here, and Fin Oates edited.

While the constant music hammers away and the shrieks of excitement find the spaces in between, the dialogue gets a necessary helping hand from subtitles that have been slipped in so we can understand what’s intelligible. Most of it is pretty predictable after all, but it needs bringing out. When Tara hears that she should ‘defo’ go with Paddy again, we understand that the advice was clearly in the affirmative.

On a balcony adjacent, Badger (Shaun Thomas) and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) hang out in recovery mode for the next round, the bacchanalia anticipated in the night to come. A quiet girl called Paige (Laura Ambler), who will eventually hook up with Em, shares their apartment.

No space for heart-break or recrimination, just party-on with the best of them

With his outgoing personality, ‘hot legend lips’ tatts and bleached blond hair, Badger establishes a connection with the girls quickly. Tara feels that she fancies him but in a gross pornographic scene on stage, Badger loses any desirability for her. As she wanders off into the night, Paddy takes over. Predictably, she succumbs to his advances, and the sex is at first mutually consensual, but as soon as it is over, Paddy shows that he is unsuitable relationship material too.

In a heart-breaking scene in which Tara attempts to apologise to Paddy afterwards for being trashed during their tryst on the beach, he gives her a cold, blank look, declares it fine and walks off.  Again.

There is no space for heartbreak or for recrimination. Tara will do as expected, and party on, as loud as the best of them. Heaven forbid that this defining moment and great time to end all great times should descend into malaise or unhappiness. Spoil the party? Don’t even think about it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 March 2024. Also published on Rotten Tomatoes