How To Have Sex arrives on a wave of praise and prestige, fresh from turning heads at Cannes and Sundance where it nabbed top indie honors. As feature debuts go, director Molly Manning Walker couldn’t ask for a stronger start. Her gritty dive into teenage sexuality plays like a realistic reimagining of classic coming-of-age comedies, tackling serious themes without losing a sense of messy fun.
We follow BFFs Skye, Em and Tara as they party hard during a Greek vacation, with the goal of shedding virginity before summer’s end. Tara has her sights set on two English bros staying next door, the sweetly dopey Badger and his edgier mate Paddy, who oozes trouble behind a seductive smoulder. What plays out between them is a nuanced and unsettling exploration of budding desire, social pressure and sexual trauma amid a bacchanalian backdrop.
Walker lets situations simmer in ambiguity, skipping easy resolutions. Performances feel wonderfully lived-in, especially from lead Mia McKenna-Bruce who announces herself as a talent to watch. If this first step is anything to go by, the director has all the makings of a unique new voice. Strap in for a promising and disquieting debut.
A Dream Vacation Turned Nightmare
How To Have Sex throws us into the drunken bliss of three British BFFs – Tara, Skye and Em – as they party hearty in a Greek resort town, celebrating the end of high school. Bookish Em planned the holiday, while tall and brash Skye fuels the good times, often at naive Tara’s expense. Still a virgin, Tara hopes to fix that on this trip after being hazed one too many times.
Luck seems to be on her side when two flirty lads, Paddy and Badger, start chatting them up poolside. Badger’s an affable goof, winning laughs with stupid tattoos and jokes. Meanwhile, brooder Paddy oozes raw magnetism tempered with an aloof danger. Tara likes them both, but her pals push her toward steamy Paddy against her better instincts.
After a beachside tryst with him fueled by peer pressure and vodka courage, Tara feels deeply unsure and adrift. She gave verbal consent but can’t shake a sense of violation. Ugly power dynamics lurked beneath Paddy’s smooth moves that her drunken 17-year-old radar couldn’t spot. We rewind to see their slurred hookup play out ambiguously – mutual to a point before turning one-sided. Tara’s body language screams discomfort even as she says all the right things. It’s a beautifully complex rendering of consent’s nuanced battlefield.
Paddy either ignores or misses cues that would give most people pause. And in the harsh clarity of day, Tara struggles to even understand the encounter herself. She masks inner turmoil to keep up the party, squashing confusion to save face. Another regrettable liaison with Paddy follows, this time definitively non-consensual.
Meanwhile, Tara’s bond with her girls starts fraying as distance grows after that first strange night. Bubbling trauma remains unspoken, friendships fracture. By the end Tara still hasn’t processed events or found closure. The film lets us stew in the echoes of her pain without tying everything up neatly. It’s an intimate portrait of shared holiday joy curdling into loneliness and violation amid the relentless drumbeat and strobe flash of youthful hedonism.
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Standout Performances Anchor an Unflinching Debut
For a first feature, Molly Manning Walker shows remarkable confidence and perspective both behind the camera and in her emotionally transparent writing. Performances feel wonderfully lived-in, avoiding types or categorizations, with revelations doled out organically through subtle gestures as relationships deepen before rupturing.
At the heart of it all is a star-making turn from young ingénue Mia McKenna-Bruce, whose face becomes a window into Tara’s roiling mess of arousal, doubt, shame and dawning trauma. We track wave after wave of awareness sweeping her soft yet distressed features, as she grapples with experiences beyond her emotional vocabulary. It recalls a young Kate Winslet in the way McKenna-Bruce bravely opens herself to the camera’s gaze, utterly vulnerable yet magnetically watchable.
As Tara’s brash friend Skye, Lara Peake also impresses in a complex role, charting a journey from protective ally to jealous viper with chilling nuance. Badger actor Shaun Thomas brings innocence and menace to the part, dangerous but somehow still sweet. As for Samuel Bottomley’s Paddy, he’s pure predatory charisma concealing something uglier beneath, reminiscent of a Riley Keough character.
These layered turns mesh perfectly with Walker’s understated directing and intuitive eye for finding truth in each fleeting moment. She trusts her audience, presenting situations without context or judgment and letting meanings take shape organically. Quiet scenes swell with emotion as her young charges bare confused souls, tapping reservoirs few filmmakers access at such a tender age.
The film captures how trauma and desire intermingle messily en route to adulthood, especially within pressurized party environments. Walker examines this without moralizing, gray areas intact. So while an assault occurs, human complexity persists. Easy heroes and villains don’t emerge, just young adults stumbling through formative eras blindly as emotions confront numbing agents like EDM, MDMA, spring break nihilism and codependent bonds.
It’s an unsparing look at sexual messaging and gender politics among Gen Z kids rarely depicted onscreen. The fact that Walker presents all this artfully without sacrificing intimacy or entertainment power cements this as an impressive launch from a director to watch.
Room for Growth Remains
For all it achieves as a promising first feature, a few shortcomings hold How To Have Sex back from fully realizing its potential. While layered performances draw us in emotionally, characters remain frustratingly static without much in the way of growth or development. The themes explored also adhere to conventions, lacking the innovation seen in the directing and acting.
Visually, given Walker’s background as a renowned cinematographer, one expects the filming to impress even more. But the party scenes come off strangely pedestrian and underwhelming. The lighting design and camerawork lack a distinct personality or the evocative atmosphere created in similar films exploring hedonistic themes.
Certain stylistic flourishes do deliver – a wide overhead shot of a penis-shaped pool is a brilliant metaphor for the looming patriarchy. But generally the visual language could dig deeper. The photography simply isn’t as dynamic as Walker’s emotional sensitivity and the electricity of the musical performances might require.
In the end though, these feel like minor quibbles that should resolve themselves as the promising director matures. For a first feature, the sophistication and control demonstrated elsewhere overshadows any small missteps.
Probing the Minefield of Teenage Sexuality
While not explicitly didactic, How To Have Sex explores several thoughtful themes around youth culture and sexual politics. Primary among them is consent, examined with great nuance. Tara’s encounters interrogate where mutual desire ends and violation begins, especially given factors like peer pressure, substances impairing judgment and inexperience interpreting cues.
The film opens our eyes to the silencing mechanisms that can prevent young women from sharing discomfort in charged social settings. Trauma remains buried so others aren’t burdened, partying continues unabated. It suggests rape culture begins insidiously not with malicious acts by monsters, but confusion and miscommunication between humans.
Without excusing harm caused, the story provokes much empathy on all sides. The Universal pain of fumbling towards intimacy amid intense insecurity resonates deeply. One leaves pondering how cultural and gender messaging warps the vulnerable.
We’re also shown how trauma cast shadows long after incidents occur, subtly altering teen friendships and senses of self. Lingering unease remains as the film closes, Tara’s equilibrium not fully restored.
While a gritty sex comedy on the surface, underneath Walker has crafted a sensitive discourse seeking nuance around consent, assault, pleasure and consequences. The questions raised linger for long afterwards, leaving audiences implicated yet also more attuned the intricacies of sexual awakening in 2020s Western youth culture. The insights feel earned rather than preached.
A Stellar Debut That Lingers Uneasily
Powerful, unpredictable and undeniably gripping, How To Have Sex announces a breakout new cinematic voice in Molly Manning Walker. As a writer, she respectfully probes numb intersections of trauma, youthful folly and hedonism’s false refuge. As a director, she draws courageous performances while rejecting pat storytelling formulas.
The visual craft falls slightly short of expectations given her background. But the vivid character work compensates, especially a shattering lead turn from Mia McKenna-Bruce that suggests a star in bloom. She grounds the film emotionally as friends and certainty slip away, carrying wounds inwardly that may never properly heal.
It concludes on a haunted note true to its unflinching ethos, forgoing crowd-pleasing catharsis. The unease will sit with you for days, as will admiration for the filmmaking on display. Mark these names – Walker and McKenna-Bruce feel destined for great things. How To Have Sex delivers on that promise while charting bracing new terrain for onscreen depictions of consent and desire. It’s not always an easy watch, but the discomfort gives it a strange power that lingers.
How To Have Sex
A stellar debut for Molly Manning Walker and her exceptional young cast, How To Have Sex brings impressive insight to the confusion and exhilaration of teenage sexuality. It captures the in-the-moment chaos beautifully.
- Nuanced performances, especially lead Mia McKenna-Bruce
- Doesn't moralize or provide easy answers
- Captures party chaos and intensity well
- Thoughtfully explores consent and trauma
- Strong and sensitive direction
- Asks important questions about sexuality/assault
- Visuals less impressive than expected
- Characters lack deeper development
- Can be conventional at times
- Photography is underwhelming