“How to Have Sex” Shows the Contradictions of Youth

This review of How to Have Sex originally published as part of our TIFF 2023 coverage.

There are a lot of ways to have sex. With your mouth, with your hands, with toys, with a penis half soft from alcohol jabbing at your crotch.

There are a lot of ways to have sex. Face to face, from behind, pressed into the ground unable to move.

There are a lot of ways to have sex. Connect with someone who connects with you and enjoy the crackle of new lust. Or ask a girl and when she says no, ask again, and then laugh, and then ask again. Or be that girl and decide it’s better to tell your friends you had sex than to share the truth throbbing in your temple.

Molly Manning Walker’s debut How to Have Sex is about how to have sex. Specifically, it’s about Tara, a teenage girl, desperate to lose her virginity while on holiday with her two best mates, mean girl Skye and bicurious Em. The girls drink, swap outfits, drink, eat French fries, drink, dance, drink, and drink some more. And then they join up with the friend group next door: nice dirtbag Badger, lesbian dirtbag Paige, and actual dirtbag Paddy. Tara is immediately smitten with Badger and his “hot legends” tattoo even if Skye calls him a clown and insists Tara can do better.

The secret of Walker’s film is that it’s not afraid to be fun. It’s hard to watch Tara and not feel the nerves of a protective older sister, but it’s just as easy to get seduced by the party. Walker captures the euphoria of even the most basic nightclub, the most nauseating night of binge drinking. She captures how it can go from magical to scary to sad and back to magical all in the span of minutes.

Every moment of the film holds possibility — for better or worse. Every new outfit, every new shot, every new person, has the potential to lead to a new experience. Or vomiting. Or both! This is a film of boths. Hot and cold. Fun and miserable. Consensual and nonconsensual. To say this is a film about gray areas would be to rob it of its power. There is no in between here. There is just everything at the same time.

While queer people are certainly not immune to these complications, Em and Paige provide the film its lighthearted, sex positive subplot. There’s no big coming out moment. Instead Em asks if very obvious lesbian Paige is a lesbian and a few shots later they’re kissing. While Tara finds herself pulled between her chemistry with Badger and the forcefulness of Paddy, Em and Paige show the possibility of two people communicating and finding mutual enjoyment. Again, it’s worth noting, queer people can have experiences like Tara’s. (As an adolescent, I may have been Badger but I spent my 20s as a gay Tara learning sometimes a lesbian dirtbag is also just a dirtbag.) But here queerness represents an escape. It’s another way, a better way.

The entire cast embody their characters in support of Walker’s realism, especially Mia McKenna-Bruce as Tara. She captures each moment’s contradictions and Tara’s often-conflicted desires. Pretending to be drunk is actually really hard and McKenna-Bruce has to pretend to be drunk through pretty much the entire movie. Tara herself is performing a sort of adulthood and McKenna-Bruce is most resonant when she reveals flashes of Tara’s innocence. There are moments where she feels so small, performance and cinematography underlining the fact that this is just a kid.

When I was in college, certain guys knew how to have sex. They knew that if they asked, girls would often say yes. If they leaned in with their mouths open, girls would often let them. This was especially true if the girls were drunk or alone or if the guy asked twice. To them, asking twice wasn’t rape — it was just giving the girl a chance to change her mind.

I remember feeling disgusted. And I remember feeling jealous. I wanted to know how to have sex. Like Tara, I felt the social pressure. But a part of me I’m grateful for wouldn’t let me mirror that behavior. I knew that wasn’t the kind of sex I wanted.

As I got older, I realized some of my best sexual experiences during this period were when I didn’t have sex at all. Maybe we were too drunk, maybe I just wasn’t sure if I should make a move, maybe we were having enough fun kissing or talking. When you’re young, you don’t know how to have sex anyway.

This is a film that honors the bad sex, the good sex, and the sex that wasn’t sex because sex requires consent. It also celebrates the connections that didn’t need sex at all. Friendships, flirtations, strangers who adopt you at the club.

How to Have Sex is a tribute to anyone who ever helped us live through the night — and confront the memories that remained past dawn.

How to Have Sex is now playing in theatres.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 521 articles for us.

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