The Plot: Having finished school and preparing for the next stage of their lives, Tara (Mia McKenna Bruce) and her besties Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) head for a sun holiday in Greece. It’s time to party, drink and have fun before the weight of adult responsibility comes bearing down on them. Maybe it’s already arrived. They become friendly with their fellow English neighbours including the kindly Badger (Shaun Thomas) and the more predatory Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). Tara is teased about her virginity by her mates. One night she gets separated from them and something happens to change her life…
The Verdict: Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, How To Have Sex is the feature debut of writer-director Molly Manning Walker. Having worked as a cinematographer on films like recent charmer Scrapper, she was well-placed to observe the dynamics and complexities of modern youth culture. Now 30, Walker has served up her own vibrant slice of life which captures a hectic few days in what should be a formative time in several young womens’ lives. That title may sound provocative, but it’s a far more subtle film than that. Any sex is fumbled, rushed and incidental as if Manning Walker wants to move away from the act itself to tackle more thorny themes around consent and the ability to make sound judgments in a given situation. It’s certainly topical.
At the core of Manning Walker’s emotionally-charged story is the character of Tara. Smaller and quieter than her more vivacious friends, she’s a person who knows how to enjoy life but hides her feelings from her friends. As Tara goes through an emotional upheaval after a night out, it becomes clear that she’s not herself. Not that her friends even notice – they seem to be too busy, lost in a hazy mist of drinking and clubbing. It’s interesting to observe Manning Walker criticising the support structure of that friend group, given that young women have to look out for each other in this #MeToo era. In the end credits, there’s a thanks to anyone that the director met on girls holidays, so she’s been collecting stories and compiling them into this one character and her muted journey towards adult life. It’s more than just a coming-of-age film. It’s also about how Tara processes her mixed emotions.
Mia McKenna Bruce made a brief but strong impression in Kindling earlier this year and has now cemented her potential further with a lead role in How To Have Sex. She not only has the ability to capture the careless joy of youth, but also internalise Tara’s journey so that very little needs to be said. It’s all etched on her face and in her uncomfortable body language, as she walks alone through the morning detritus in a bright green dress in the local town that is geared towards English-speaking tourists. It’s a powerful scene which is typical of Manning Walker’s careful ability as a cinematographer to use one image to evoke the theme of the film. You have to look out for yourself and also expect others to look out for you. Not that the film is too weighty or anything. There’s a delicate balance of humour and amiable characters along with the more thought-provoking matter.
How To Have Sex is a vibrant and impressive debut which doesn’t talk down to its audience. It’s refreshingly frank but without the need to overstate itself. There’s a subtle, quiet power to it which is more the reserve of an experienced filmmaker, which makes Manning Walker already several steps ahead in her directing career. It will be interesting to see what she comes up with next. Go see.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
How To Have Sex
How To Have Sex (UK / Greece / 15A / 90 mins)
In short: Quietly powerful
Directed by Molly Manning Walker. Starring Mia McKenna Bruce, Shaun Thomas, Samuel Bottomley, Lara Peake, Enva Lewis.