Editor’s note: “How To Have Sex” won the top prize in “Un Certain Regard”, the second-tier competition at Cannes Film Festival
LAST YEAR a female British writer-director introduced her debut feature film at the Cannes Film Festival and the intimate chronicle of a fateful European beach holiday established her as an exciting new talent. Exactly the same could be said this year. Just as Charlotte Wells’s “Aftersun” was one of the best films of 2022, Molly Manning Walker’s “How to Have Sex” is likely to be remembered as one of the finest of 2023.
The holiday-makers in Ms Walker’s piquant coming-of-age drama are three teenage schoolgirls from London on their first trip abroad without their parents. It’s the sort of package deal in which your plane lands in Crete at three in the morning and you have to wait for hours by the pool before you can check into your hotel room. Not that this stops the exuberant trio predicting, at high volume, that they are about to have “the best holiday ever!” Their plan is simple: put on their skimpiest outfits, down several shots of alcohol, and head to the many bars and clubs on the main street in Malia that cater for like-minded young Brits.
Emma (Enva Lewis) seems to be the most restrained of the bunch—which isn’t saying much—and Skye (Lara Peake) the most lascivious, while Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is the quick-witted life and soul of the party. She’s also the only one of the gang who is a virgin, and she is under joking but persistent peer pressure to change that before they catch the plane home.
As the hedonism begins, “How to Have Sex” could be mistaken for a raucous gross-out teen comedy, a female companion piece to “The Inbetweeners”. Viewers of a certain age may well feel that rowdy, noisy Malia is hell on Earth. But the girls are so elated by their freedom, and by the goldfish-bowl-sized glasses of blue cocktails, that you can appreciate why it might feel like a paradise to them. Even when the clubs are at their most deafening and chaotic, and the girls at their wildest, Ms Walker treats them with enormous sympathy, noting the subtle shifting power dynamics within their friendships. Ms McKenna-Bruce deserves to become a star, too: her saucer-sized eyes project the insecurity and naivety behind Tara’s motor-mouthed bravado.
The film then slides smoothly from comedy to drama. One morning after she has been absent from their shared hotel room, Tara admits to her friends that she had sex the night before. Specifically, she had sex on a beach, in the middle of the night, with a boy she barely knew or liked. The encounter was on the very edge of rape. As a deft, heart-stopping flashback demonstrates, a boy can ask for consent twice, but a girl can be so cold, scared, tired and miserable that muttering an affirmative can feel easier than saying no. Tara is in an environment devoted to binge-drinking and carnality; sexual assaults seem almost inevitable.
“How to Have Sex” raises important questions about such resorts. It should be required viewing in schools, in travel-company offices and in the homes of teenage girls. But it is too vibrant and multilayered to be dismissed as a treatise on one particular issue. As carefully constructed as any thriller, yet as believable as any documentary, the film sparkles with Ms Walker’s insights. After the grim night on the beach, for instance, the holiday carries on as normal. Tara keeps dancing and partying, and even manages to smile when the boy who had sex with her is in the room. She simply doesn’t know what alternative she has. ■
“How to Have Sex” will be released theatrically by MUBI in America and Britain, though the date has not yet been announced.