By Greg Carlson
The rough UK equivalent of America’s hedonistic spring break rite of passage, the annual descent of sun-seeking young people on tourist-friendly coastal resorts in Greece, Spain, and other spots following stressful academic exams conjures up youthquake fantasies and parental nightmares in equal measure. The provocative title of filmmaker Molly Manning Walker’s feature directorial debut “How to Have Sex” partially obscures the layered meanings and irony contained within. The busy Walker served as the director of photography on Charlotte Regan’s well-received “Scrapper,” and her visual bona fides as a cinematographer pay off handsomely in a coming-of-age tale noteworthy for its sensitive point-of-view and standout lead performance by Mia McKenna-Bruce.
Walker has revealed that her screenplay is partly autobiographical. During the events surrounding the film’s world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize, Walker spoke of being sexually assaulted at the age of 16. In the movie, the anticipation and tension surrounding what will happen to McKenna-Bruce’s teenage Tara is intensified by Walker’s stylistic choices, which plunge the viewer into the dizzying, neon-drenched, alcohol-fueled culture of clubs and casual hook-ups. Walker closely identifies the film’s perspective with Tara, taking care to withhold any judgment on the choices she makes.
Malia, on the island of Crete, is presented as a magnet for revelers enjoying a short respite before learning the results of their General Certificate of Secondary Education qualifications. The trio to which Tara belongs includes friends Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake), and Walker establishes the inconvenient fact of Tara’s virginity as a kind of ominous harbinger of what will transpire during the vacation. It certainly doesn’t help that her pals poke fun at Tara’s lack of sexual experience; Walker often uses subtle reaction shots to indicate that Skye might not be capable of the kind-hearted sisterhood Tara desperately needs.
Tara’s liminal suspension between childhood and adulthood distinguishes “How to Have Sex” from Lynne Ramsay’s more accomplished “Morvern Callar,” which serves as a partial inspiration for Walker. The introduction of a slightly older group of northerners residing in the hotel room next door sharpens focus toward a slippery triangle. Tara circles the possibilities of the gentler but still game Badger (Shaun Thomas) and the colder, more “fit” Paddy (Sam Bottomley). All the while, Walker conveys the performative flirtations and rituals with a strong sense of authenticity favoring showing over telling.
At its very best, “How to Have Sex” journeys through the terrain of fear and confusion that accompanies the realization of being violated. How to process broken boundaries and the lack of positive consent? Lovia Gyarkye points out how McKenna-Bruce’s performance “dial[s] back Tara’s energy so that we can feel the character withdraw the more she remembers.” Tara’s awful experiences are not defined by Walker for her protagonist (as much as it might be obvious to the viewer) in a way that immediately registers in black and white. The outcome is less a critique of social constructs and their warped expectations than a moving and sympathetic diary entry simultaneously universal and specific.
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