‘How to Have Sex’: Love, Partying, and Consent Go to War at Cannes

·6-min read
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Much has been made in recent years of the “immersive” qualities of two war films, Dunkirk and 1917, which aimed to throw spectators into the chaotic tumult of battle—all the better to feel the tremor of gunfire, smell the gunsmoke and mud, and sense for themselves the breathtaking fear of combat. Molly Manning Walker’s first feature film, How To Have Sex, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival Friday, doesn’t advertise itself as immersive or a war film—the film centers on three British teenage girls heading to Crete for a hedonistic summer break—but it is in fact both.

As the film begins, our little platoon of vacationing soldiers are heading into battle with their spirits high: in Crete, this squadron of mouthy, boozy girls hope to do combat in pool parties and on the dancefloor and vanquish some boys with whom to lose their virginity. Their weapons and armor: glitter and make-up, dresses so skimpy you could barely blow your nose in them, veritable gallons of cheap alcohol, and (most important of all) an affected bravura to see them through the whole shebang. Their only weakness: their gender.

In these opening scenes, Manning-Walker shows a great vivacity of spirit, ably seizing something spunky and engaging about these three young women still in the thick of high-school studies. If the actors’ performances are a smidgen too forced in these early vignettes—which involve a great deal of whooping, singing, dancing, puking, shouting, and falling—they still conjure up a close-knit squad with an earnestly schoolgirlish love for one another and some minor, low-simmering tensions.

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In the lead role of Tara, the loudest and least experienced of the three, Mia McKenna-Grace foregrounds some traces of vulnerability, as the trio embark on a night out, go for a night swim, and lie down in the road late at night while discussing their exam results. For anyone who has ever been 16 and/or English, these scenes are terribly evocative of and accurate about messy nights out: in particular, a moment when the girls all vomit early on in the night and then go straight back for another round of shots captures that je-ne-sais quoi particular to “having a large one.”

In other words, Manning Walker’s methodology is effective. Due to her propulsive, kinetic filmmaking, which captures the rush and blare of low-rent nightlife and the warm, slightly panic-inducing stupor of sweet booze in the company of wayward friends, the audience is bathed in this holiday in an experiential way. That sensory approach, coupled with a brisk and naturalistic dialogue, plants us right there.

Buoyed by these early forays, our young soldiers have tasted blood and want more: shaking off a hangover early on, the girls meet their neighbors on the balcony of their seaside resort. That includes two young men, Badger and Paddy, who our heroines estimate to be between 19 and 21. The girls themselves are, we guess, 16 or thereabouts, though they pretend to be older and more experienced. The battles are ready to commence: on the battlefield of various tacky dancefloors, high on laughing gas, the girls will take the boys on, and also fight each other, for attention and supremacy.

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Badger is a nice boy, boasting dumb tattoos and badly bleached hair; idiotic, like many his age. Paddy, the more attractive option, is more of a dark horse. In an early scene prefiguring much of the discomfort still to come, Tara volunteers to drink beer from a bottle positioned in Badger’s crotch, at a contest pitting couples against one another by the pool; the imagery of young girls being made subservient to men is disquieting, but Tara seems to accept this is the deal and to engage willingly.

Later, running away from another sordid display of gross patriarchal sexuality in a superclub, the drunken and vulnerable Tara is gathered up by Paddy, who whisks her away to the seclusion of a beach, where he dunks her in the icy sea against her will, and then has sex with her, on terms that are discomfitingly ambiguous, after briefly seeking an admission of consent from her.

From here, the film reaches a higher ground of subtlety and characterization, relying heavily on McKenna-Bruce’s talent to shade in all of the complexity of Tara’s reaction to her experiences: her conflicting braggadocio and uncertainty, the sheer force of novelty of what she has gone through, and her rapid growth as a person at a time when the distracting clamor of parties is still ringing out all around her. Manning Walker cleverly shows Tara as being able to switch registers, and not being all-consumed by anger or regret; this is, after all, still a teenager who wants to party. Samuel Bottomley, as Paddy, ably switches between raffish charm, manipulative coaxing, nagging, and—in the aftermath—a curtly dismissive demeanor towards Tara. All of these scenes convey real pain; they bear the unmistakable neck-prickle of authenticity.

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For the rest of the film, the dynamic between Paddy and Tara becomes a veritable duel—the problem being that the odds are stacked against Tara from the start. Her growing awareness that she is fighting a losing battle is disturbing; these scenes have a kind of inbuilt horror to them, because Paddy’s ability to turn on a dime is understood by any older spectator.

How To Have Sex, being a debut, is not perfect: Some unevenness of tone obtains, and the ending rather tapers off, leaving its lead actor a little inert and under-directed in the final moments. But the movie has grace notes to spare, such as the corny little dad jokes that Tara and Badger share, which display their camaraderie. (Ironically, Badger being such a friendly type is what ultimately makes him a less desirable sexual partner.) Tara cheers her friend up, as he’s heaving his guts up into the toilet, by saying, “I’m selling my Hoover—it was gathering dust.” The film’s visuals are stark in an unaffected way, and the wooze of alcohol, lined with threat, is rendered well in choppy, glitchy edits.

Manning Walker’s film is set to fare well when marketed as a kind of combination of Spring Breakers and Aftersun, both of which it resembles superficially; its success will be all its own, however, in allying a disarmingly frank and immediate approach to youth culture with a forensic eye on unequal gender politics.

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