How to Have Sex review – a Brits abroad jaunt that goes horribly wrong
In Molly Manning Walker's strong debut, a trip to Malia becomes a growing nightmare for one girl hell-bent on losing her virginity
UV paint on cheap white vests. The heady smell of Ambre Solaire. Chips stuffed in croaky gobs, and club entry wristbands stained with the remnants of last night’s tacky chunder. Cinematographer and now first-time director Molly Manning Walker understands the cursed textures that make up the fabric of a British holiday abroad, with all of its grotesqueries of body and spirit. She understands that it is perfectly acceptable to be sick on your friend’s toes, not shower, and then do it all again with two hours sleep and one chicken gyro lining the stomach. She understands that these friends might be smart and university-bound, but they are still entitled to a holiday where they share one brain cell and pole-dance to Avicii.
How to Have Sex, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard strand, may well struggle to say anything we’ve not already seen discussed elsewhere when it comes to sexual assault, but is a fully realised world that stings with recognition. We kick things off in the Cretan town of Malia, a veritable Mecca for pre-university Brits who go for a mad sesh and return with a STD. There’s Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), an effervescent virgin with cute chipmunk cheeks and a foghorn voice; Sky (Lara Peake), who seems older, cattier, and more experienced; and Em (Eva Lewis), who adopts a more caring role in the group. They arrive at their bog-standard accommodation for a week of smoking fags and kissing boys, soon teaming up for their nights out on the strip with fellow hotel guests Paige (Laura Ambler), Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Badger (Shaun Thomas).
While things kick off raucously enough, with scenes that will have certain audience members nodding along in queasy nostalgia, it quickly stops being a comedy. How to Have Sex is far from instructional, as the title suggests; it presents us with two sex scenes, both of which involve some level of manipulation/abuse of power, and one of which would be defined as rape. These scenes are scary because they are so quotidian, and most teenage girls could say that they, or one of their friends, have experienced something hauntingly similar. It would be too simplistic to call this a film about consent; it forces you to figure out what is considered an “above board” sexual encounter in a scenario where everyone is young, drunk and grabby. But it can all feel a little didactic at times – you almost feel like at some point the film will pause, and a teacher will get on stage and say “can anyone tell me what is wrong with the boy’s actions in this scene, please?” The encounters depicted often lack nuance.
McKenna-Bruce is the stand-out as a young girl with no idea what to do with her life, evoking hurt and helplessness with a mere glance, even if these scenes of trauma-induced catatonia could do with defter editing. A great decision Manning Walker makes is to not afford the three girls much of an inner life or back story other than their party personas. More than offering a profound new discovery or talking point around sex, you come away from How to Have Sex thinking about how this this sort of sesh-heavy lifestyle, this blandly poisonous rite of passage, flattens people into an anonymous stereotype that reeks in the mouth like morning-after alcopops.
How to Have Sex was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch