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‘How to Have Sex’ review: A teen holiday frames an arresting portrait of trust and consent

A sharp and illuminating answer to nearly every losing-virginity teen comedy in existence, debut feature filmmaker Molly Manning Walker’s “How to Have Sex” follows three teenaged British friends, all waiting to hear about their exam results, on holiday in Malia, Crete. It’s a spring-break Cancun equivalent: a nonstop barrage of all-you-can-drink, clubbing, shots, puking, more shots, more clubbing, 4 a.m. chips (fries) and hookup options by the score.

In the breathless early scenes, we scramble along with Em (Enva Lewis), Skye (Lara Peake) and Tara, also known as Taz, played by the remarkable new talent Mia McKenna-Bruce. She’s the the focal point of “How to Have Sex,” in part because she hasn’t had it yet, and this girls’ trip may be Tara’s last chance — as Skye, the needling underminer of the trio, puts it. The girls are only 16. The internalized pressure on Tara, who already has confidence issues, masked by a raucous sense of humor, works like a broken compass, misdirecting her instincts.

At the Malia hotel, Tara meets a boy on the next-door balcony. He is Badger (Shaun Thomas), a frosty-haired goofball with a “hot legends” and a lipstick tattoo, for starters. His lifelong friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) instantly senses their connection. He’s a competitive, callous kid at heart, and Tara senses it. But she’s also getting the nudge from Skye toward the more superficially acceptable Paddy because Paddy is “fit.” We hear that word a lot, in many contexts, throughout the story. Meantime Em, who is queer, finds her holiday diversion with Paige (Laura Ambler), the boys’ lesbian roommate.

Across a long, increasingly tense stretch of obliterating alcohol and heartrending interactions, “How to Have Sex” becomes an on-the-fly examination of trust, consent and everything 16-year-old girls deal with, on holiday or not. When Tara disappears one night and her roommates confront their neighbors about her whereabouts, director Walker’s script (developed from a short film) flashes back to what happened between Tara and Paddy a few hours earlier. The movie is extraordinarily alert to gradations of consent, and assault, and to how Tara experiences it all.

All of which makes it sound grueling. It is, yet it isn’t. Walker, who came up as a cinematographer, and her own director of photography Nicolas Canniccioni don’t tighten the screws for cheap suspense. It’s so much better than that. Slow zooms in on a conversation are unsettling enough, and let the reality of Tara’s emotional states come through naturally.

McKenna-Bruce will remind many of Florence Pugh; already, McKenna-Bruce can work wonders in terms of assured technique and complicated emotions and she’s magically right as Tara. Her face, as the vacation nears its end, tells us everything, and many things at once: how she’s trying to process her feelings about what she wanted, what she got, what she can say about it, and what words elude her. The ending is perhaps too neat and upbeat. But the character, and the audience, have just been through a lot, in a narrative without lectures or thesis points. How people deserve to be treated, and the difficulty of negotiating what they deserve: It’s a huge subject. And it’s best handled the way it is here: through character and behavior and discrete moments of pain, joy, beauty.

The movie’s a bit like “Aftersun,” which dealt with a younger girl and her father on a Greek holiday. Films such as that one, and “How to Have Sex,” help us see and feel what roughly two generations of teen sex comedies — in which young women and teenaged girls were there for pliable decoration — didn’t give a damn about.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

“How to Have Sex” – 3.5 stars (out of four)

No MPA rating (some language and sexual material; suggested for ages 15+)

Running time: 1:31

How to watch: Opens Feb. 9 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Wrigleyville; the Classic Cinemas Charlestowne in Charleston; and the Emagine Portage in Portage, Indiana