Director: Molly Manning Walker
Writer: Molly Manning Walker
Stars: Laura Ambler, Samuel Bottomley, Daisy Jelley
Synopsis: Three British teenage girls go on a rites-of-passage holiday – drinking, clubbing and hooking up, in what should be the best summer of their lives.
The Cannes Film Festival has just found its first surprise hit in Un Certain Regard selection How to Have Sex, which is much more than an exceptional directorial debut from London-based cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Molly Manning Walker and a showcase of Mia McKenna-Bruce’s acting talents. This is predominantly an evocative conversation starter. It is occasionally difficult to watch due to the unsentimental glimpse at the female experience, but it is so rewarding once it reaches its closing moments.
Most private schools have a post-graduation/exam group holiday that serves as a rite of passage for thousands of teenagers worldwide. In Puerto Rico, numerous teenagers who have recently graduated from high school make a trip to the Dominican Republic (Punta Cana) or Mexico (Cancun) to celebrate their “years of hard work” (or slacking off) – serving as a communal last hurrah, as everybody is heading their separate ways after the summer – by staying at a slightly fancy hotel with a pool, binge-drinking cheap liquor to create a numbing effect, and listening to some reggaeton at the nearby bars. The songs of Ozuna, Anuel AA, Bryant Myers, Almighty, and Bad Bunny (before his rise to being a megastar) were blasting out of the speakers at all moments, creating a sense of camaraderie as everyone was singing them in harmony like a choir. However, there are more than a handful of negative aspects.
These holidays can be seen as contentious, and I agree. After attending the aforementioned trip myself a few years ago and reevaluating it later, you notice these groups’ lack of respect and lousy behavior when traveling to foreign places with a beer in one hand and a rum coke in the other. Sure, some good moments may arise from this six-day expedition, as you get to have fun with your classmates (potentially) one last time before heading to college – playing soccer while tipsy, the late-night pool session where we talk about our respective futures, meeting new people from other nearby schools, etc. But, there’s the potential for people’s worst tendencies to pop up; brutish actions caused by drunken and addled teens cause the vacation to feel extremely exhausting and less enjoyable the more time you stay. It is an endurance test that we need to experience to see how truly awful those trips actually are.
In the U.K., there’s a similar holiday; every summer, in the wake of GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education), sun-seeking teens go to Malia, a town in Crete, Greece, for a couple of days in pursuit of booze-addled ventures to let go of the stress induced by assignments, tests, essays, and the drama that awaits them back home. And London-based cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Molly Manning Walker brilliantly turns that summer holiday into an endurance test for three sixteen-year-old friends while they await their academic qualification results in How to Have Sex, which is playing in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Don’t come into this film wanting something similar to Harmony Korine’s lousy neon-hued party of a movie, Spring Breakers, because Manning Walker has much more to offer. She delivers a coming-of-age story without the cliches and the usual safety net of schmaltzy sentimentality attached to it, opting for a more realistic view of the female experience during those types of situations.
How to Have Sex begins with the central trio of Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) preparing to have a thrilling and adventurous four days in the hot and hectic town of Malia. The nightclubs over there offer captivating promotions of cheap booze to make you walk through their doors. They are ready to hit the dance floor, take a dip in the pool, and hopefully conquer some boys and lose their virginity. These initial moments have Molly Manning-Walker showing the girls in very high spirits to embrace the party life – singing, dancing, drunkenly shouting (Best Holiday Ever!) – with occasional moments having them falling down (and puking) just to rise up again and hit some moves. Tara, Skye, and Em have formed a closely-knit pact to enjoy this party paradise before they go their separate ways. Well, at least for Em, that’s the case; Tara and Skye say their future is less certain than that of their friend.
This is the last hurrah, a trip that might close out their chapter together. Their room overlooking a resort hotel’s pool, where day and nightlife feel like two very different beasts, paves the way for an array of pulsing misadventures, where the intricacies of teenage friendships are in full realistic display. The wear-and-tear of the city’s vodka-smelling haze affects everyone onscreen, making them think about their actions once the starlit skies turn blue. All of this is demonstrated through the facial expressions and chemistry of the leading trio, but mainly Mia KcKenna-Bruce is the one who stands out, transmitting her swindling emotions of excitement and loneliness through a multifaceted glance that breaks your heart. The story later develops when the girls see a group of hungover men in the flat next door: the friendly and brash but shy Badger (Shaun Thomas) and the insensitive Paddy (Samuel Bottomley).
The former gets a sense of Tara’s swindling emotions, noticing the loneliness and desperation; meanwhile, the latter is inconsiderate and discourteous. The manipulative and constantly-negging Paddy is the one who manages to escort her away from the neon-lit club onto the beach, where the terms of the events that transpire there are concerningly ambiguous – Manning-Walker detailing some of the realistic horrors of what can occur during those group holidays. The film relies on Mia McKenna-Bruce’s acting chops, as her reactions to what she endured are quite complex, and Manning-Walker’s authentic grasp on the subject matter and story during the latter half of How to Have Sex. Tara is still a teenager who wants to have fun. However, McKenna-Bruce adds some underlying pain to her character; her portrayal of the character has a double-sided feature where each look has equal amounts of elation and restraint.
As Tara’s situation with Paddy grows, you notice how the film’s title has multiple meanings; the inner negotiation of post-sex ponderings causes her to think if she wants to forget it all or go along with her day. But, in the grand scheme of things, these characters, even though these last four days were brutal in multiple senses, they emerge stronger than they were before. We have seen the story Manning-Walker wants to tell before a couple of times throughout the years. Yet, not with such a keen eye for details in its gender and sexual politics, as well as its characters. How to Have Sex has a strong identity and sense of importance that might cause audiences from various age groups to gather around and start a conversation about similar events, whether you have gone on a similar holiday or not. This is definitely one of the most surprising and best films I have seen at the Cannes Film Festival so far.