How to Have Sex (2023)
Director: Molly Manning Walker
Screenwriter: Molly Manning Walker
Starring: Mia McKenna-Bruce, Enva Lewis, Lara Peake, Daisy Jelley, Laura Ambler, Shaun Thomas, Samuel Bottomley
Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes 2023, How to Have Sex follows three 16-year-olds on a girls’ trip to Malia. Molly Manning Walker’s riveting directorial debut captures those formative teenage years, with a focus on female friendship and first sexual experiences, specifically around the subject of consent.
Best friends Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake) fully embrace their first taste of post-GCSE freedom, in a joyous bubble of drinking and partying. While the film navigates dark territory, it is also full of great humour, perfectly depicting the emotional rollercoaster of being a teenage girl and the messy silliness of Brits abroad.
But beneath the glittery, ecstatic haze of uninhibited freedom, Walker sustains a looming sense of something sinister, and this darker area is explored later in the film.
How to Have Sex expertly captures the experience of being 16, transporting us into Tara’s position. The close-ups of her face reflect both euphoria and overwhelm, as she navigates exciting but daunting untrodden territory. Thrust into an ultra-sexualized world where men receive blowjobs onstage at nightclubs and prizes are awarded for sexual conquests, the party island is a sensory overload. These close-ups are most poignantly used during moments of sexual intimacy, conveying Tara’s emotional experience, rather than the physical act itself.
The presentation of female sexuality is a stark contrast to films like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers; the voyeuristic gaze of his camera constantly leering over the teenage girls’ half-naked bodies. Thankfully, the male gaze is purposefully absent in Walker’s film, and in the wrong hands, such intimate scenes might have been handled far less sensitively.
Molly Manning Walker’s film highlights the pressure to have sex; whether that pressure is from society, friends, or the pressure we put on ourselves. As the more sexually experienced Skye tells Tara, “if you don’t get laid on this holiday, you never will”. The film demonstrates how losing one’s virginity can be seen as a goal to be achieved, no matter what the potential cost.
Walker discussed her intention behind the film’s theme in an interview with Miranda Sawyer for The Guardian. “For me, consent has become too black and white in terms of ‘she said yes, so it’s fine’…that doesn’t always work – it’s not enough”. The film does a great job of exploring the nuances of consent, rather than a binary presentation, particularly the subtleties of external pressures and coercion. Walker avoids blaming men alone, explaining in the same interview: “not taking away all blame or guilt, but I know that it’s not all their fault… it’s the way that society has brought them up”.
Walker’s personal experience heavily influenced the film, drawing on her own wild teenage holidays, as well as a sexual assault at the age of 16. “Some of these holidays are still the best memories of my life, but there are other complicated memories within them”, she told Woman’s Hour. The film importantly acknowledges that a traumatic event does not need to eradicate the joyful ones, nor define someone as a “victim”. Walker added that “as a British society we love to not talk about things”. She hopes to take the film to schools, in order to open up important conversations about consent.
While everyone’s first sexual encounter is different, the film manages to speak to a universal female experience that is painfully relatable. Mia McKenna-Bruce’s captivating lead performance and the film’s urgent message makes How to Have Sex a total must-see.
Written by Gala Woolley
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