I would stamp Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex as one of the best debuts in contemporary British cinema. In a film centred around partying, underage drinking, and Brits abroad culture, How to Have Sex’s beacon lies within its female solidarity, subtext, and refusal to sensationalise the effects of being under the influence. So many films on this topic can feel out of touch with today’s youth, yet Walker’s film is devoid of cringe, brutally highlighting the pressures of being a teenage girl.
Trigger Warning: The sensitive topic of sexual assault is discussed in this article.
Tara (Mia Mckenna-Bruce), Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake) embark on a weeklong holiday after their GCSE exams. They endeavour to make this week as raucous as possible, drinking at every hour of the day, and partying all night with the intention of sleeping with as many boys as they can. The lingering anxiety of their exam results and future plans propels them into drinking absurd amounts and stuffing their faces with cheesy chips. However, Tara’s holiday stops being fun as a different anxiety plagues her mind.
How to Have Sex is an innately sensory film; there are close-ups of skin-on-skin contact, obnoxiously loud club music, and a blurry camera in times of character dissociation amongst other examples. This element is particularly potent when the traumatic action and aftermath of sexual coercion and lack of consent are shown on screen. Its heavy themes are dealt with sensitively but nevertheless show the harsh reality that victims go through of denial and inner reconciliation all contained within a peer pressure cooker.
Walker’s screenplay mixed with Mia Mckenna-Bruce’s acting shows that subtext is truly compelling. How to Have Sex is a garish film, but its moments of silent contemplation resonate the loudest. It’s with Walker’s writing making Tara say one thing hiding her true intent and Mckenna- Bruce’s facial expressions showing her trauma without speaking of it that is so salient. The subtext screams so in your face it’s frustrating to see how characters in the film choose to disregard and not acknowledge what’s happened.
Walker strongly condemns the perpetuation of rape culture amongst men. Despite Badger’s (Shaun Thomas) comfortable demeanour towards Tara, his kindness is only so limited. He has an inkling of what’s happened yet his cowardice trait of not being able to say anything to Tara or reprimand his best friend ultimately enables this cruel behaviour to circulate.
It’s significant that Walker included a character like Badger in her film as he represents the apologists within society. Not only does the assaulter commit a crime but their friends inadvertently become assailants of it as their character falters in refusing to speak up. All hope is not lost in How to Have Sex, as in moments of struggle it is the young women around Tara that validate her experience and are the most reassuring.
The film candidly portrays the sweetest moments of female friendships from mundane conversations, complementing each other to sharing clothes and doing each other’s hair. Yet this frank depiction of teen friendship is twofold, within this endearment, an underlying sense of insecurity can breed, a sad but realistically weird commonality in some friendships.
Lara Peake’s performance of Skye and her ability to portray both jealousy and judgement seen only within her eyes is truly striking. Skye places the male characters above her own friends, appeasing to them at every moment. It’s tiresome yet at the same time, it’s difficult to be annoyed at Skye’s character for simply being a flawed and deeply insecure young person. Walker portrays the complexity of teen friendships in such a precise way manoeuvring between the fine line of love and hate that can occur in platonic relationships. She highlights that some friendships can be manipulative with a smiley façade, particularly when the subject of boys are in the mix.
The film’s soundtrack is brilliantly executed, and its house electronic music makes sense within the film’s landscape. The music along with the crowded spaces and strobe lights immerses audiences into the world of the characters’ clubbing experiences. However, exhilarating the music feels within the first half of the film, the house tracks are ingeniously played with as its effects dwindle in the later portion of the film. It begins to feel suffocating and overwhelming reflecting Tara’s own changed attitude towards going out.
Since watching How to Have Sex I’ve been unable to shake its importance from my mind. Moving forward I can only envision the inevitable seismic waves Walker’s films will have on British cinema.
How to Have Sex will be released in cinemas on November 3, 2023.