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How to Have Sex review - compelling journey of a vulnerable teen | reviews, news & interviews

How to Have Sex review - compelling journey of a vulnerable teen

How to Have Sex review - compelling journey of a vulnerable teen

This British debut delivers fine film-making, nuanced acting and a pitch-perfect script

A study in wordless pain: Mia McKenna-Bruce Phil Guy/Ambhur Burghill

Molly Manning Walker surprised herself by winning the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year with her rites-of-passage feature, How to Have Sex. Why the surprise? It’s a compelling debut.

For the first five minutes, you might decide you won’t stay the course without earplugs, or a lobotomy. Before we see anything, the soundtrack is of a landing announcement that’s struggling against the din of a plane-load of raucous young partygoers, ready for the off. Walker deployed a huge cast to populate the hotel pools and clubs of Malia in Crete, but we are trapped at first in a taxi with three screaming teenaged girls, out to enjoy themselves in the week their GCSE results are due. They don’t talk, they squeal and shout and pump fists to their badly sung versions of Dance anthems. 

At their hotel the shape of the film starts to emerge. Dreadlocked Emma/“Em” (Enva Lewis, pictured bottom between Lara Peake, left, and McKenna-Bruce) is the sensible one, polite and clever. Skye (Lara Peake) is the pace-setter, urging on the others to feats of partying and copping off. And vulnerable to her challenges is husky-voiced Tara/“Taz” (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the pint-sized but streetsmart fixer of the trio, who scores them a better room with Reception and serves as a kind of cheery mascot. On the neighbouring balcony are peroxide-highlighted Badger (Shaun Thomas, pictured below left), slick Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), and no-nonsense Paige (Laura Ambler), mates from somewhere up north.

As the three young women plunge into pools and clubs full of half-naked people who are as intent on maximum hedonism as they are, the characters’ secondary shadings are filled in. Em is praying for 10 As in her results, so she can go to college and start a restaurant business; she is also on the lookout for non-binary adventures. Skye is the least likeable, a possibly unloved child who almost boasts of her lack of motherly care and views sex as literal “scoring”, a game to be won. She also serves as a kind of pander, advising Taz to aim higher than Badger, letting Paddy know Taz is a “massive virgin”, while egging on Taz with the suggestion that Paddy is “fit”. 

Shaun Thomas as Badger in How to Have SexTaz soon becomes the main focus of the action as she yells and dances her way towards her first sexual encounter. Her instinct is to hang out with kindly Badger, the only one who immediately seems to realise she needs looking after, but she gets caught in the toxic undercurrents of his friendship with Paddy. They have been mates since they were three, though Badger admits he’s a “nightmare of a guy“. In the overheated atmosphere of Malia’s clubland, where gross sex-games are played, the two prove unspoken rivals as well as old mates, and Tara is collateral damage.

The delicacy of the acting throughout the cast can’t be overstated. All the actors are in their twenties, but plausibly drop a decade on-screen. Within the welter of images and sounds Walker throws at the screen, they establish the nuances of their characters with a telling look or gesture, Taz in particular. As her unhappiness grows, she is often seen for minutes at a time asleep or staring into space, McKenna-Bruce wordlessly projecting her inner pain. Skye’s sullen selfishness becomes increasingly obvious, as does Em’s caution and kindness, the reliable bringer of cheesy chips. 

In this scenario, though, kindness is valued less than braggadocio. The lurid magenta, pink, blue and purple lighting of the dance scenes bespeaks an artificial world that all the holidaying Brits have embraced whole-heartedly. It’s a fantasyland where there are no consequences. They will drink big bowlfuls of evil-looking bright blue booze through straws but not vomit, no, not them. (They spend a lot of time hugging their toilets, predictably.) They will have demeaning sex, consent-free abusive sex, or no sex, and shrug it all off the morning after, even call it the best night of their lives. 

The sound design is spot on, weaving conversations in and out of the mix, keeping the background pulse going. Silence is at a premium and becomes a key element in itself. As we follow Taz through the crowds, a handheld camera swinging from side to side suggesting her nascent anxiety, the relentless dance music recedes, fading and muting temporarily, as a reflection of her disengagement from the fantasy. Lara Peake, Enva Lewis and Mia MKenna-Bruce in How to Have SexWalker, formerly a DP, is also adept at using spatial relationships to suggest emotional ones: Taz starting to lag behind her swaggering beau, realising he hasn’t noticed and doesn’t care; or walking home alone at dawn down an empty, detritus-strewn street, in a long shot, like Omar Sharif arriving on his camel; and hesitating to keep up with the other two as they all race for their flight home, isolated from them by her academic failure. She is not returning as the livewire girl of a week earlier.

All the while, the thrumming of electronic bpms drives the party animals onward, tracks cleverly chosen for their lyrics: “Here, kitty-kitty” on the dance floor, “You don’t have to be so strong” over the end credits. There’s an addictive buzz to the visuals and a carefully controlled modulation of the tone, from high energy to sadness, while all superficially remains everyday and often banal. There’s no melodrama, no conventional violence, but it’s a sad and wrenching film with real heart, reminiscent of Beats in its ability to depict a younger generation honestly and unpatronisingly, to stress the value of their friendships and to make you care about their mistakes. Its important message about consent is pitch-perfect. 

They will have demeaning sex, consent-free abusive sex, or no sex, and shrug it all off the morning after


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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