How To Have Sex review: a powerful feature debut

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Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut sees a girls holiday go horribly wrong – here’s our How To Have Sex review.

If there’s one thing debut feature director Molly Manning Walker is especially great at, it’s conveying emotion in her work. After doing extensive work as a cinematographer and directing a few shorts, the filmmaker makes her feature debut as a director and writer with How To Have Sex. It’s a film whose title makes it stand out rather awkwardly in your Google search history, but what lies underneath that title is a movie that captures perfectly the meandering teenage years where crises of identity are pushed to the back burner in favour of mindless fun. As the title suggests, it explores attitudes towards sex, too, but not in the ways you might expect.

Tara (a raw, incredible Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) are in Malia for a bit of mindless fun. More specifically, for a holiday of drinking and debauchery before they receive their dreaded GCSE results. Walker picked an excellent central cast – all three convey the boisterous excitement of 16-year-olds with ease and a generous dose of charisma. But what’s interesting is what lies underneath that confident exterior. McKenna-Bruce, who was memorable also in the drama Kindling, gives a brilliantly layered performance as Tara, who’s come to this holiday a virgin looking to have sex for the first time.

The interesting part of that dynamic is that it often seems she’s not even that fussed about losing her virginity, but all around her are the signs of a society that’s sex-obsessed, an obsession that weedles its way into the minds of young people. As the girls party and make friends with other groups of British students, all three feel the need to weave false narratives about themselves, all with the aim of seeming more experienced and desirable.

A still from the film How To Have Sex

With her screenplay, Walker shows that she remembers exactly what it was like to be a teenager, in the phase where what others think of you trumps everything, and the societal pressures applied to young people (from outside influences and each other) to be ‘cool’. McKenna-Bruce, Peake and Lewis translate her writing into naturalistic, deeply sympathetic performances.

As their friendships with fellow partiers, namely Samuel Bottomley’s Paddy and Shaun Thomas’ oddly-named Badger, progress, the holiday takes what you could call a bit of a dark turn. In truth, that description is flippant. Walker draws us in with identifiable female characters, and then brings every woman’s worst nightmare to life.

Walker uses the latter half of her debut to get into the aspects of consent that some may still unfortunately consider ‘grey areas’ all while setting her tale at a constantly sweaty, messy party with booming music. Everyone is so off-their-tits drunk it’s questionable whether anyone can consent to anything. The director (and cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni) capture both the highs and lows of being out clubbing. In one moment you’ll see the vibrant colours of the lights and the joy on everyone’s faces, in the next the claustrophobia of being surrounded by bodies and the swirling dizziness and anxiety of being isolated in a crowd.

It shows often how situations that are meant to be enjoyable can quickly turn nasty, and does so in a way that makes us watching feel our stomachs drop the moment things turn. But among that unpleasantness and the necessary, important discussions it will undoubtedly cause is a tale about the three women at the heart of it. They may not know who they are, what they want, or even what they’ll be doing a year from now, but regardless of all of that, they’re together through thick and thin.

Molly Manning Walker is clearly a filmmaker crafting complex and compelling stories about female experiences – good and bad – and is certainly one to watch.

How To Have Sex is in UK cinemas on 3rd November.

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