A teenage summer holiday turns endurance test in cinematographer Molly Manning Walker’s arresting debut

How To Have Sex

Source: Cannes International Film Festival

‘How To Have Sex’

Dir/scr: Molly Manning Walker. UK, Greece. 2023. 98mins

“Best. Holiday. Evah!” It’s an emphatic, exuberant mantra, belted out like a terrace chant and toasted with shots of toxic novelty alcohol throughout a hedonistic package trip to the party town of Malia in Crete. For teenage school friends Tara (Mia Mckenna Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), this trip is a rite of passage: a post-GCSE celebration that plays out to a soundtrack of air horns, techno and blurry late-night declarations of undying friendship. And for Tara, it may be the opportunity for her to finally divest herself of her virginity. But, as this terrific debut from DoP-turned-director Molly Manning Walker shows, there comes a point at which the riotous, relentless good times stop being fun.

Manning Walker has an acute ear for teen vernacular and a sly sense of humour.

It’s been quite a year for Manning Walker, the cinematographer on Charlotte Regan’s Sundance prize-winner Scrapper now premiering her feature directing debut How To Have Sex in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard having already sold all rights to Mubi. Although tonally far removed from Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, Mubi will no doubt be hoping that audiences will turn out in similar numbers for another sensitively-directed bittersweet story of sunshine, sand and an undertow of sadness. The combination of Manning Walker’s witty, empathetic storytelling and a star-making performance from Mckenna Bruce should make this a highly sought-after title on the festival circuit and with theatrical audiences, skewing towards a younger, female demographic but with broad arthouse appeal.

Manning Walker’s skill as a writer and filmmaker is evident in the way that, having first set a scene that is as subtle as a giant inflatable penis, she then deftly disentangles the three girls, teasing out the flickering tensions and distinct characters from what initially seems like an amorphous scramble of fake tan, synthetic neons and high octane excitement. Tara, with her petite frame and fondness for corny jokes, is the baby of the group, caught in the slipstream of Skye’s brash and performative worldliness. Em, meanwhile, might be the most organised – she’s the one who corralled them all to the airport, the one predicted to ace her exams – but she is also the first to vomit after a fatal combination of first-night excitement, cheap booze and cheesy chips. The girls soon bond with the holidaymakers in the adjacent room: sweet-natured doofus Badger (Shaun Thomas), oily charmer Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and tattooed lesbian Paige (Laura Ambler).

Not surprising, given Manning Walker’s background, How To Have Sex is a visually arresting work. Nicolas Canniccioni’s camerawork captures the fizzing teenage energy and supersaturated excess, while also working sympathetically with the young cast to tune into another wavelength – the one where the hidden anxieties and concealed hurts are lurking. But the film’s use of sound is equally evocative. After a drunken encounter on the beach, Tara is struggling to come to terms with the fact that her first time was not only a disappointment, it was also borderline abusive. Determined to keep the party going, she climbs up on a club podium to dance. We hear the pounding music. But we also hear her ragged breathing – she may be in the middle of a massive, oblivious crowd, but she’s utterly alone.

The writing is sharp throughout: Manning Walker has an acute ear for teen vernacular and a sly sense of humour. But some of the film’s most powerful moments are wordless, playing out in tight shots of Mckenna Bruce’s face. One of the most memorable comes near the end of the film, in a taxi heading to the airport. While Skye and Em sleep, Tara is uncomfortably awake. We see a rising tide of unhappiness in her eyes as she replays the past few days. Your heart aches in sympathy. And so, to be fair, does your liver.

Production company: Wild Swim

International sales: MK2 Films intlsales@mk2.com

Producers: Ivana MacKinnon, Emily Leo, Konstantinos Kontovrakis

Cinematography: Nicolas Canniccioni

Editing: Fin Oates

Production Design: Luke Moran Morris

Music: James Jacob

Main Cast: Mia Mckenna Bruce, Lara Peake, Shaun Thomas, Sam Bottomley, Enva Lewis, Laura Ambler