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Sundance movie review: 'How to Have Sex' powerful, compassionate

Mia McKenna-Bruce stars in "How to Have Sex." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi
Mia McKenna-Bruce stars in "How to Have Sex." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- How to Have Sex, which screened Thursday at the Sundance Film Festival, is a raw and honest portrayal of teenage female sexuality. The young cast members give layered performances in a compassionate look at their great expectations.

Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) are British teenagers vacationing in Greece. Though all three plan to party and hook up with boys, Tara hopes to lose her virginity.

Writer/director Molly Manning Walker has a keen sense of the difference between a healthy desire to experience sex and the degrading environment society enables. The beach town hosts parties with drinking games where contestants pour beer from their cleavage or crotch.

There's even an erection contest that solicits volunteer women to stimulate the men. Tara declines to participate but has to watch the boy she likes get aroused by strangers.

At their hotel, the girls meet Badger (Shaun Thomas) and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) in the room next door. All five act like party animals, but it becomes clear some of them are playing the roles young society expects more than genuinely enjoying it.

Mia McKenna-Bruce (L) and Lara Peake (R) star in "How to Have Sex." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi
Mia McKenna-Bruce (L) and Lara Peake (R) star in "How to Have Sex." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi

Tara especially is the loudest of the trio at the beginning. In close-ups, McKenna-Bruce conveys that she's struggling to keep up. When Tara is alone, she lets down her guard for only the audience to see.

Tara's sexual adventure is even more complex. It is natural for a teen to want to have these adult life experiences, but lack the development to fully comprehend all aspects that physical relationships involve.

Enva Lewis (L) and Mia McKenna-Bruce star in "How to Have Sex." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi
Enva Lewis (L) and Mia McKenna-Bruce star in "How to Have Sex." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi

Most adults probably remember real life disappointing their expectations. Not that it's bad per se, but it's hard to prepare anyone for their feelings in the aftermath of sex.

Their endearing immaturity is also conveyed by the suggestive outfits the girls wear. They only understand revealing = sexy but don't understand yet that if the suggestive outfits don't fit their bodies they look like kids playing pretend.

Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas star in "How to Have Sex." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi
Mia McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas star in "How to Have Sex." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi

That's also something that comes with experience. They will learn how to highlight their physiques with classy attire in time.

Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) wants to lose her virginity. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi
Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) wants to lose her virginity. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Mubi

Walker also captures the overwhelming and exhausting nature of teenage partying. Through sound design and editing, the loud, raucous activities don't seem like much fun.

The girls begin to feel the effects of nonstop drinking, too. They vomit at night and by day three or four can barely wake up.

The intensity of How to Have Sex is earned. It's not preachy because it gradually reveals the truth behind the party, and does so not with judgment but rather with honesty.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.