Teen Trauma, Friendships, and Sexual Autonomy in 'How To Have Sex'
'You're resilient' is not always a compliment
This review is part of my 2024 Sundance Film Festival Coverage!
How To Have Sex has been sitting on my Letterboxd watchlist for months. I’m unsure of how I came across it, but as soon as I saw it I pressed the little Letterboxd clock to add it.
I saw the poster and read the short description, and once I realized that it was a coming-of-age story around sex and girlhood, I was even more excited to get my hands on it. Similar to Sofia Coppola, I am drawn to stories about the private lives of teenage girls—specifically the elements of their lives that they only share with their inner circle.
It could be because I have had so much content tossed at me about teenage boys and their sexual experiences when I was watching films in my girlhood. American Pie, Weird Science, Trojan War, and others were all films that explored cishet (white) teen boys and their sexual desires. It could also be because I was once a teenage girl and wanted to see any part of the story of my sexual experiences, questions, and desires on the screen that weren’t trauma-based (Eve’s Bayou, Precious) or wrapped up the story of a boy.
Molly Manning Walker’s How To Have Sex decided to give me a little bit of all of that. Three British besties, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Em (Enva Lewis), and Skye (Lara Peake) go on holiday (that’s Love Island for vacation) to Malia and are determined to tick some of their sexual boxes before heading back home to the realities that await them. They want to create memories they will never forget, to drink, make out, and in Taras’ case, even lose her virginity.
Tara wants to be the author and executor of her first sexual experience. It feels like she wants it to go beyond just participating in the physical act of sex, but wants to figure out her genuine desires. But her age—and obvious limited experience because of it—introduces uncertainty, and that allows confusion to make its way into her exploration. That confusion is enhanced when she meets a few boys who want to take part in her experience, and possibly steal control of it. Their wants, paired with large hiccups in her once solid friendships, just make her journey into intimacy far more complicated.
When you first read the description on Letterboxd:
Three British teenage girls go on a rites-of-passage holiday—drinking, clubbing and hooking up, in what should be the best summer of their lives.
…you could easily put this next to films like Bottoms, The To-Do List, and Booksmart. A bunch of lighthearted films that have a teen girl spin and playful exploration of sexual discovery. It’s not until you get to that last line of the description that you feel a tinge of darkness might come into the narrative.
My hopes, to avoid the trope of sexually traumatic storylines at the expense of a teenage girl, felt like they were going to be dashed about halfway through the film.
I sat in my seat hoping that the uncomfortable buildups happening on the screen between Tara and any of the boys would ultimately lead to nothing. That the dark undertones would turn out to be zombies coming to ruin their vacation, or even a sudden death on the island that these meddling teens were involved with. Anything but another story where a teen girl loses her sexual autonomy in a world soaked in Euphoria lighting.
I didn’t push the button on discovering my true sexual desires until I was into adulthood. My sexual journey came with untangling my identity and past sexual trauma, so it wasn’t until after doing that work that I was ready to make my own set of boxes to tick. My teenage years were instead filled with teaching myself to do what others would like. I was cutting out Cosmopolitan sex tips and watching porn hoping to learn what to do to fulfill the desires of the people I’d been told that I would one day be intimate with.
It’s a huge contrast to the autonomy and self-awareness I was learning as an adult, and perhaps it’s because of my journey that I wanted more for Tara’s. Via MUBI- “Walker’s ambition is for the film to capture both the highs and lows of being a teenager. It’s about the darkness of sexual assault, yes, but also the resilience, and the parties – and, ultimately, the fun of it all.” I take issue with the want to pridefully label teen girls as resilient in the realm of sexual assault. While I don’t want them to experience it at all, it’s upsetting when we focus on creating worlds on film that push it forward, instead of creating those where the moments don’t happen.
I know I often ask for the world of film to not be so real…and then turn around and ask for it to tell more of the truth. In those confusing (yet fair) asks though, there must be a space where we acknowledge that we have simply told far too many stories that reflect the scary moments of life than those that don’t, especially when it comes to women, girls, queer folks, trans folks, ENBY folks, Black folks, and other folks who have marginalized identities.
There was room for other ‘real life’ stories to be told in How To Have Sex. Spending time exploring the complexities of teenage girls and their friendships while they navigate things like jealousy, growing up, and new friendships as they move outside the bubble they create for themselves was one—but it didn’t go that route.
I’m no longer a teenage girl, but I want far more for those who are than this film was able to deliver.
Yes, this has a bit of a queer storyline in it but don’t get your high bun shaved back hopes up.
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