The package holiday is a familiar rite of passage for British teens, and one which has attracted considerable airtime in reality TV and cinema in the last two decades. From the psychedelic trance clubs of Lynne Ramsey's Morvern Callar to the ritual humiliations of BBC3's Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, sun-soaked European resort towns function as heterotopias for a certain type of Brit abroad: familiar enough to provide cheesy chips, fry-ups and English-speaking holiday reps but foreign and unreal enough to facilitate a complete breakdown of boundaries and behavioural norms.
For How to Have Sex's central trio of 16-year-old besties, Tara, Skye and Em, the Malia minibreak represents a step towards adulthood: away from overbearing – or uncaring – mothers, suspended in the Schrodinger's cat period of plausible deniability between sitting their GCSEs and getting the results, delighting in small details like the swan-shaped towels in their cheap, shabby hotel room, and, most intoxicatingly of all, the possibility of pulling every night. Queen bee Skye is especially keen for Tara to lose her virginity on their trip, while sensible mum-friend Em just wants them all to remember to bring their phones out with them to the club.
Manning Walker's script and direction foreground the agony and ecstasy of female teenage best-friendships, the shifting sands of allegiances in the trio dynamic which can switch from hand-holding and declarations of undying love in one breath to snide pointed remarks and hissed put-downs in the next. Mia McKenna-Bruce shines as protagonist Tara, tiny and gobby, bubbling over with an enthusiasm for life which sees her thrashing her body about and jumping up and down in the club while everyone else around her bump and grinds, caught between the girlhood she's trying to deny and the womanhood she's trying to emulate. A gulf begins to grow between Tara and her two friends, for whom things like sex, academic success and career goals seem to come easily, and matters take a turn for the worse when they befriend Badger, Paddy, and Paige, a group of twenty-something-year-olds in the next hotel room along.
As Tara gets closer to learning the 'lesson' suggested by the film's title, much to her friends' delight, questions of consent come to the fore. Their entire holiday is characterised by coercion; from the novelty shot glasses the girls buy as a prize for whoever can pull the most, to the explicit games orchestrated by holiday reps in the hotel pool culminating in onstage blowjobs in front of a crowd of holidaymakers, to the constant insistence on just one more drink, don't go to bed just yet, why are you being so boring? In the airport on the way home, the trio grapple with the implications of a late-night walk on the beach, a violation they don't have the language for and which, even in their codependent closeness, they can barely discuss.
Although How to Have Sex isn't traversing radically new ground, its keenly observed dialogue and unflinching portrayal of rape culture in action on the Malia strip – anchored by McKenna-Bruce's luminous performance – have drawn critical buzz, including the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes 2023. It's a film which, sadly, will resonate with almost anyone who has ever been a teenage girl, blinking away tears behind glitter eyeshadow and false lashes.
This was a preview screening as part of BFI London Film Festival. How to Have Sex is on general release from 3rd November.