How to Have Sex

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How to Have Sex/Photo: Nikolopoulos Nikos

Molly Manning Walker’s debut feature captures the hedonistic, vibrant joy of being young and free, as well as the acute insecurities and fears of youth. Intelligently wrought, fast-paced, visually compelling, and hard-hitting, conveying the complex nuances of friendship, sex, and consent, the film follows the experiences of three British teens on vacation in Crete. 16-year-old Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) have just finished taking their GCSE exams, and and are off to enjoy themselves before they need to think about the future. Drinking, more drinking, dancing, and sex, are all on the agenda, and anything goes in the name of fun.

Yet despite the veneer of sexy outfits, camaraderie, and jokes, there are tensions beneath the surface. Even though they have decided not to check the test results while on vacation, the exams are on their minds. The GCSE exams may not determine the course of their entire future (but they’re too young to understand that a life can be reinvented many times over), but it does determine their next step and what options of higher education will be open to them. Just as significant, and even more crucial to their emotional well-being, GCSE results will influence whether they will still be together with their mates next year or will their academic success – or lack of it – become a divisive element, creating a hierarchy in the friendship. So, yes, they are worried about their exam results, especially Tara, because by the time one is 16 one is well aware who is the “smart one” within a friendship, and who is not, even if it has not been explicitly stated. Mia McKenna-Bruce is riveting as the diminutive Tara, exuding a vivacious warmth and appeal, while conveying the character’s inner thoughts and vulnerability through her expressive gaze.

More dire than exam results is the issue of virginity, as Tara, once more the odd girl out in the triad, proclaims, “I can’t die a virgin!” It’s hard to believe that losing one’s virginity is still a significant rite of passage in contemporary culture, and that so many young people think of sex as one particular action. But that is the reigning myth. Manning Walker depicts the many forces at play in a young person’s mind – wanting to be mature and sophisticated or at least be seen as such, wanting to be like everyone else, wanting to be special, and wanting to be desired. Friends form a protective shield around one’s insecurities, and most social interactions take place while traveling in packs. Yet there are tensions, jealousies, and hierarchies within these packs. As Skye looks at her reflection in the mirror, clearly not pleased at the image before her, one can’t help but question her motivation as she pushes sexy outfits on the already delectable Tara and seems heavily invested in ridding her mate of her dreadful virginity. On the balcony next to them are Badger (Shaun Thomas), Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Paige (Laura Ambler). Here too, there is a pecking order, as Paddy is obviously (to the 16-year-old eye) more “fit”, the guy who gets all the girls, while Badger is relegated to being the good-natured sidekick, and Paige finds her own path beyond the hetero-normative social structure.

Drinking massive amounts of alcohol all night long is apparently an essential part of having fun, even if it means hurling and headaches in the morning. It is perhaps the natural outcome of a culture founded on repression and inhibitions, a way to feel free. To fully explore letting go of one’s inhibitions might mean being willing to diverge from the pack, to admit embarrassment or discomfort – but the unwritten commandment to “go with the flow” is more powerful than anything else. Tara, Em and Skye encourage and support one another, but the encouragement is within the guidelines of those unspoken rules of fun – drink to beyond capacity, look hot, and attract the guys that are considered hot.

How to Have Sex/Photo: Nikolopoulos Nikos

Manning Walker’s experience as a DP (Scrapper) is evident as the camera and soundtrack capture the delirious exuberance of the all-night excesses, the intense bonding, instant friendships, and the way one can feel utterly lost in the crowd, as what is supposed to be fun becomes confusing and overwhelming. Mia McKenna-Bruce delivers an outstanding performance as Tara, her eyes expressing by turns her confusion, understanding, pain, and resilience. Although the film does not have graphic sex scenes, it depicts a difficult and complex emotional landscape with precision and intensity that some viewers may find triggering. How to Have Sex received the Un Certain Regard award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

How to Have Sex

UK 2023 | 98 minutes | English | Hebrew subtitles

Written and directed by Molly Manning Walker; Cinematography: Nicolas Canniccioni; Editor: Fin Oates; Music: James Jacob; Cast: Mia Mckenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, Samuel Bottomley, Shaun Thomas, Enva Lewis, Laura Ambler.