Molly Manning Walker on How to Have Sex
Perhaps the strongest British debut of the year, Molly Manning Walker's How to Have Sex is a tale of liberating holiday shenanigans that descends into an ever-buzzing, neon-soaked hellscape of pressure to have more fun, more booze, and more sex
Molly Manning Walker’s poignant debut How to Have Sex is ecstatic and sobering at once. The cinematographer-turned-director was inspired by her own teen holiday memories to balance highs and lows for protagonist Tara, played with endearing, subtle fragility by Mia McKenna-Bruce. “We didn't want to make something that was really dark,” Walker says. “[The film] summarises those holidays that we used to go on. Some of those memories are still some of the best of my life.”
Awaiting their GCSE results in Malia, Crete, the trio of Tara, Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake) want to go wild. It’s conforming to some supposed standards that motivates them, but also some pure, unadulterated enthusiasm; the kind that instantly turns a drab motel room with a pool view into a five-star oceanfront suite.
“It’s the joy that you feel as a teenager when you're free,” Walker says, and you get a gut-wrenching nostalgia for that happiness that’s chipped away at as you grow older.
In Malia, Tara is looking to lose her virginity. Who to have sex with doesn’t seem to matter as long as Skye approves of them; the how isn’t ever investigated. When the gang befriend goofy Badger (Shaun Thomas), fuckboy Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and their pal Paige (Laura Ambler), the movie takes a sadly familiar turn. “The film is designed in two halves,” explains Walker. “The first half is the joy. And then in the second half, you go into Tara’s brain and really understand how she's feeling about the situation. That kind of went into everything: costume design, makeup, music, sound design.”
Costume designer George Buxton moved to Malia before shooting to observe teens and 20-somethings in their Saturday night bests: splashy, mesh, cutout dresses that may not look very practical but serve as the perfect party uniforms. These outfits are an up-to-date version of the ones Walker used to wear on her own summer trips. “We were looking at photos of me,” Walker says, explaining the girls’ looks are carefully colour-coded. “Each colour represents a different thing. Skye wears green, and then when Tara wears the green, you feel the pressure of Skye on her. Orange is danger… there’s all these hidden things in it.”
The meticulous prep also comes through in the film’s most harrowing scenes. Walker had intimacy coordinator Jenefer Odell choreograph two sequences confirming the mundanity of sexual assault and coercion. “Both scenes are shot in very similar ways,” she says. “You focus on the face, you see [Tara’s] emotions rather than visualising the act itself. There's no human connection in it. There's no love and support for her. I wanted to make a comment on the fact that it might be a yes, but she's so uncomfortable.”
Hard to put a name on when you’re so young, these experiences are the result of a warped understanding of intimacy and a lack of communication that hardly gets any better post-adolescence. Opening the conversation to men is crucial, and How to Have Sex holds a much-needed mirror to problematic masculinity and camaraderie with Badger and Paddy. “The lesson that we wanted to teach was [that] we need to call our mates out,” Walker says. “We need to be kinder to each other and talk about things more, communicate better, and not put pressure on each other to do stuff. And when something's going on, not let it slide.”
Discussing the comparisons with Spring Breakers, the filmmaker prefers Andrea Arnold’s American Honey and Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, citing “reality and TikTok” among her other influences. In workshops carried out before filming, teens across the UK helped shape the final draft of the script penned by Walker, which includes a sweet, organic queer summer fling. “One thing that became really apparent was that it was much more acceptable to be queer and people were finding lots of queer joy,” Walker says of the workshops. “Something we did when we updated the film was to put that in there. Let’s make sure [to show that] if the conversation around consent hasn't changed, what has changed is that queerness is shining.”
In its brightest moments, How to Have Sex doesn’t just celebrate queerness but both the lifelong and brief bonds in our lives: ride-or-die best friends, quasi-romances that never materialise, nice strangers in clubs. “We wanted to highlight that there's good in these situations,” Walker explains. “That if you have respect and understand each other, and there's fun in it, these holidays could be amazing things where you have real connections.”
And some mutually enjoyable sex, too. Ironic and provocative, the film’s title has attracted many eyeballs since its Cannes premiere, with the story defying the crassest expectations. "It’s always been the title since the beginning,” says Walker. “My idea was like, ‘This is how we learn how to have sex. This is how we pressurise each other into having sex. This is how we would be like, ‘No, that’s how you do it.’ And we actually had no knowledge ourselves," she continues, looking back at her teenage years.
“The title is almost tricking people into thinking, ‘Oh, we're gonna go on this party holiday.’ And then, hopefully, you learn something from it.”
How To Have Sex is released 3 Nov by MUBI
The film screens as part of The CineSkinny Film Club at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 7 Nov and CCA, Glasgow, 8 Nov. To attend one of these free screenings, head to theskinny.co.uk/tickets