“Why’s the world so tough? It’s like walking through meat in high heels.” This line comes from Alan Clarke’s 1987 TV movie Road, an adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s stage play, and it goes some way towards explaining the visceral and sensory experience that is Molly Manning Walker’s quite exceptional debut How to Have Sex.
In British cinema, working-class stories lost a major advocate when Clarke died soon after, in 1990, but Walker recovers some of that lost ground with her Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard entry, a subtle but powerful deconstruction of teenage dreams and desires that explores class and culture in a similarly human way.
Walker’s sterling work as a DP — notably in the upcoming Sundance London opener Scrapper — proved she certainly has an eye, but her feature debut proves she also has a very distinct and confident voice. For a vague comparison, you might look to Lynne Ramsay’s vastly underrated 2002 film Morvern Callar, but Walker’s film takes us into its heroine’s mind in ways that are much more subtle and emotional.
RELATED: Read All Of Deadline’s Cannes Reviews
The setting is the Greek town of Malia, where three teenage girls — Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), her sister Skye (Lara Peake) and their gay friend Em (Enva Lewis) — are taking their first unaccompanied holiday abroad while awaiting their exam results.
Em is a straight-A student, but Tara and Sky aren’t, and they don’t seem to care too much. The focus of the trip is to have sex, and Tara bears a particular burden, being the only virgin of the trio. At the hotel resort, Tara strikes up a friendship with their neighbor, the funny, flirtatious, self-deprecating northerner Badger (Shaun Thomas), but soon finds herself drawn to his best friend Paddy (Sam Bottomley), a much more sharp and cynical player.
RELATED: Cannes Film Festival Full Coverage
This world, for older audiences, takes some getting used to. Tara and her friends shriek uncontrollably and do stupid teenage things like trying to resurrect wet, sea-soaked cigarettes by warming them up in a frying pan. They drink shot after shot, murder their favorite songs at karaoke, puke into the small hours, and then sleep until it’s time to get up and do it all again. The thud of techno is almost a supporting character; when it’s not front and foremost, in a kind of aural ecstasy that mirrors an almost total lack of inhibition, it’s always banging in the background when the hangovers kick in.
Tara has a soft spot for Badger, but the film’s turning point comes when he is dragged onto the stage at one of the resort’s endless party nights. As a test of his virility, a string of girls take the stage and try to arouse him in very explicit ways. Badger is drunk, oblivious and delighted, but Tara is not, and while pondering this she runs into Paddy, who has no qualms about taking advantage of her in such a vulnerable, emotional state.
RELATED: Cannes Film Festival 2023 In Photos
It may seem like a spoiler, but it’s worth stressing that, although it deals with very serious issues of consent, How to Have Sex does not evolve into the kind of harrowing rape drama that this précis might suggest. Instead, Walker’s film is more of a non-judgmental behavioral study that, though it favors the female gaze, very generously looks at the situation from both sides. Sex in Malia is not a question of victims and predators but a war of attrition in which nobody gets satisfaction.
It’s a very nuanced thing to say in the era of #MeToo, but key to the film’s success is, in the very correct sense of the word, its star, McKenna-Bruce, whose performance is just extraordinary. Even at this early stage in the film’s life, critics have questioned whether McKenna-Bruce, at 25, is a touch too old for the role, but that’s missing the point: Walker’s film is precisely about the fact that Tara looks, and believes herself to be, older than she is. The dominant theme here is the rub between self-image and reality; everyone here, in a world without any adjacent adults and in true teenage fashion, feels themselves to be older and wiser than they really are, and the drama comes entirely from the tensions that arise whenever reality becomes too real to ignore.
Thankfully, there is more than a suggestion of hope here, and the supporting cast make what for anyone over 30 would be the holiday from hell into something surprisingly relatable and really quite moving. The title, meanwhile, is a mischievous provocation that hides a more serious purpose: the lesson Tara learns is not that casual sex, in itself, is bad, it’s that casual sex is only bad if casual sex is really not for you. The problem is, as Tara learns the hard way, there’s really only one way to find out.
Title: How to Have Sex
Section: Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
Director-screenwriter: Molly Manning Walker
Cast: Mia Mckenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, Samuel Bottomley, Shaun Thomas, Enva Lewis
Running time: 1 hr 38 min
Sales agent: MK2 Films