How to Have Sex arrives in UK cinemas on Nov 3.
Most Britons will remember their first holiday away from home. Taken by teenagers during the summer after leaving high school, it is a time for reckless joy, partially as it is one’s last chance at unfiltered fun before the rest of your life begins. The precipice of adulthood on which it stands is as daunting as it is exciting. Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex explores this anxiety through the unique lens of stigma, taking this rite of passage and imbuing it with rich commentary and feeling. It is a highlight of this year’s London Film Festival.
Cheers and laughter immediately begin the film as Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and her friends Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) land in Malia, Crete, for their first unsupervised holiday. They are 16, have finished their exams, and are looking forward to a holiday of swimming, clubbing, dancing, drinking and, hopefully, sex. Skye and Em are coquettish, while Tara, although just as bubbly, is a virgin and thus is especially eager to finally have sex. However, the sudden freedom of their trip exposes them to the harsh difficulties of a wider world that is just opening its doors to them.
From the opening frames, Walker showcases the sheer elation of that first getaway holiday. The girls run, laugh, scream and sing at the top of their voices, delighted at the thought of the memories they’re about to make. The editing and cinematography follow suit with tracking shots and smash cuts highlighting the whirlwind thrills of the trip. Strobe lights shine vivaciously throughout the nightclubs, and the warm Greek sunshine blankets the hotel and beaches with abandon to match the girls’ enthusiasm. When they meet up with a group of lads, led by the good-looking Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Badger (Shaun Thomas), the filmmaking only seems to get more playfully chaotic as the characters embrace the jolly chemistry and sexual tension in the air.
But underneath the pleasure are inescapable feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, emotions that only grow as the story unfolds. We go through life wanting to be adults, yet are often unprepared for the darkness of the reality that awaits, be it death, taxes, or bitter disappointment. Walker’s script recognises this, adding a pinch of melancholy into her filmmaking recipe, gradually adding more spoonfuls as the ideas of sex and freedom that the characters have built up in their heads painfully fail to live up to expectations. Even before the girls leave for Crete, their upcoming exam results hang overhead. This is another point of contention that will influence how their future looks. In the film’s most striking visual, Tara walks home after a particularly crazy night. It’s a long, wide shot at the crack of dawn in which she walks towards the camera from afar; the nightclubs and shops that were earlier booming with life and colour are now closed, empty and dim. Tara came for the leisure of the island’s luxuries, but once the euphoria wears off, the bleak reality behind it sinks in harder than any hangover could.
Mia McKenna-Bruce’s performance anchors these themes astutely. A veteran of CBBC shows like The Dumping Ground, McKenna-Bruce embraces the challenge of increased range, showing a particular affinity for subdued expressions. Her rambunctious jubilation at the film’s start is palpable, yet her performance grows quieter as the weight of her experiences sinks. By the third act, her face silently conveys everything, capturing the disillusionment of her character with remarkably heartbreaking results.
Filtering the story through the stigma of virginity is particularly interesting. Sex is immediately associated with adulthood and thus could be interpreted as the ultimate abandonment of adolescence. Sex is a defined goal for the characters, as if the act is the be-all and end-all of their trip. Walker even uses it as a point of contention amongst the protagonists amidst the drinking and dancing. Tara and Em’s dynamic is closer to that of frenemies, with Em using Tara’s virginity as a source of belittlement whenever she feels Tara is getting too much attention from men, pronouncing the importance of sex in Tara’s journey. Yet the direction they go concerns the vitality of consent and how the presence or absence of it can reveal the true nature of whatever dynamics one may have thought was present. Anxieties for the future crescendo in creating a resolution that will leave many worried about what the girls’ new lives will hold.
In spite of the incessant consumption of alcohol and the bleakness in the demise of their adolescence, Walker’s film is quite sobering and leaves room for optimism. The takeaway is that people will always find a way through hardship together, as shown through a heartfelt final conversation between two friends. Walker’s script is full of small, heartfelt nuances in the character dynamics and the blunt, sometimes crass, lines of dialogue, adding a sense of realism to the picture. This makes the bitterness of the characters’ shattered fantasies extra sour, yet it also emboldens the earnestness behind the film’s aims. Whatever pain, disappointment or fear these girls are feeling at the start or end of their journeys, it will all be okay one day.
How to Have Sex is a catchy title that perhaps suggests raunchiness. Yet it turns out to be a clever and fundamentally empathetic story of people getting their first taste of freedom and becoming frightened by what that taste suggests about the future. That it uses its premise not to bathe in debauchery, as many male-led stories of a similar nature might have done, but rather to highlight the strife of growing up makes this a wonderfully poignant experience. It’s filmed beautifully, written sharply and acted brilliantly. Vibrant and energised, yet solemn and heartfelt simultaneously, How to Have Sex is an absolute belter of a feature debut from Molly Manning Walker.
Vibrant and energised, yet solemn and heartfelt simultaneously, How to Have Sex is an absolute belter of a feature debut from Molly Manning Walker.