Running Time: 98 mins
UK Distributor: MUBI
UK Release Date: 3 November 2023
WHO’S IN HOW TO HAVE SEX?
Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, Shaun Thomas, Samuel Bottomley, Enva Lewis, Laura Ambler, Eilidh Loan, Daisy Jelley
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Molly Manning Walker (director, writer), Konstantinos Kontovrakis, Emily Leo and Ivana MacKinnon (producers), James Jacob (composer), Nicolas Canniccioni (cinematographer), Fin Oates (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A teenager’s (McKenna-Bruce) summer trip to Crete doesn’t go according to plan…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON HOW TO HAVE SEX?
In a year already stuffed with plenty of stellar British filmmaking debuts, including Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper, Raine Allen-Miller’s Rye Lane and Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean (with the impact of Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun from last year still being felt in the earlier months of 2023), How to Have Sex from writer-director Molly Manning Walker – who, incidentally, also served as the cinematographer on Scrapper – is almost like you’re being offered a wafer-thin mint after a massive meal in a fancy restaurant: you’re well aware that your stomach will probably explode if you digest one more bite, but when it tastes this nice, it’s worth the grotesque Monty Python imagery.
The film takes place during that ever-popular rite of passage for the modern-day British teenager: a holiday in the sun-drenched resort town of Malia on the Greek island of Crete. Our main holiday-goers are school mates Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) who, having just completed their GCSE exams, are eager for a few days of partying, drinking, and the odd hook-up. Tara, in particular, is keen on losing her virginity on the trip, and for a while it looks like she’s in with a shot after she and her friends befriend Badger (Shaun Thomas), the handsome boy with bleached hair and tattoos across his body who’s staying in the hotel room across from theirs with his own mates, including Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). However, it is an uncomfortable encounter with the latter that sends Tara into a state of confusion and sorrow that is, sadly, all too common for a lot of young women in her position.
As you can probably guess, How to Have Sex tackles a number of heavy themes regarding modern-day sexual practises among adolescents, particularly surrounding the nature of consent. Walker does not shy away from the psychological ramifications of being taken advantage of when in a vulnerable state, with Tara – in a mesmerising lead turn by Mia McKenna-Bruce – displaying more than a few signs of trauma and discombobulation as she tries to make sense of what has happened to her, and why the perpetrator is not only unrepentant of his actions, but eager for another round.
Not helping is the sheer amount of pressure these teens tend to put on one another when it comes to sex, with Tara’s friends passive-aggressively putting her lack of experience on display around their new chums, and even Tara herself being forced to witness overt sexual displays that border on pornographic. Walker tackles these themes of sexual pressure in a sobering and thoughtful manner, with her primary focus being on how, even when something horrific happens as it unfortunately does to Tara, the blind eye that society turns towards it is just as difficult to comprehend as the inciting incident itself.
The filmmaker also puts the deeply troubling party culture of Malia under the spotlight, and how it also contributes to a troubling view of sex that some teens take too much to heart. Malia is, at first, presented as this sun-drenched paradise where the booze flows as much as the waves on the beach, EDM bangers blast though speakers left and right, and where cheesy chips are the top snack in any situation. But then, a much seedier society is revealed, one where wet t-shirt contests, chugging beers from women’s chests, and what can only be described as a “boner contest” are all the norm.
Walker rips the curtain back to show the world how the deeply suggestive culture of this party resort, which the bar staff and MCs are all too eager to enable, can contribute to the formation of inequal and even dangerous behaviour when it comes to treating women, especially teens on the cusp of womanhood, with a bit more respect. In a way, it makes How to Have Sex essential viewing for anyone within that age group, since there are young people who still need to be reminded about how murky the waters surrounding sex and consent can be, particularly when in environments where that kind of stuff is overly encouraged.
Provocative in all the right ways, and realistic in its handling of certain situations (this isn’t the kind of film where there’s some big satisfactory moment of retribution in the third act, which in a way does make it a little anti-climactic when it reaches an end point), How to Have Sex is an impressive debut for Molly Manning Walker, who between this and her DP work on Scrapper is more than asserting herself as a formidable new voice in British cinema, along with all the other ones that have made themselves known this year.
It’s not comfortable viewing, and can even get a little disturbing at times with its portrayal of sexual pressure and consent issues – honestly, this would make a strong double-feature with Ninja Thyberg’s porn drama Pleasure, which tackles a lot of the same topics – but it’s absolutely worth seeing, especially if you’re young and already thinking about booking your flight to Crete in time for next summer.
SO, TO SUM UP…
How to Have Sex is an impressive debut for writer-director Molly Manning Walker, who tackles heavy themes of consent and sexual pressure among adolescents in sobering and thoughtful manners, which makes it important viewing for young people who may be similarly exploring their sexuality.