Written and directed by Molly Manning Walker, How to Have Sex is a powerful rites-of-passage drama that follows the tale of three 16-year-old girls on a post-GCSE bender in the party resort of Malia, on the Greek island of Crete.
I sat through most of this film feeling painfully uncomfortable. It authentically captures, in documentary fly-on-the-wall style, the riotous, noisy mayhem of my own teen years, partying on cheap booze and obsessing over boys. But now I am also watching as the mother of Gen Z teenagers.
Like those in this film, they are navigating a murky post-MeToo environment, where the lines of sexual consent are blurred and often misinterpreted, leaving women vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Walker skilfully recreates the excitement of a party holiday through the eyes of her spellbinding protagonist, the bubbly, gregarious Tara (Mia Mckenna-Bruce) and her two besties – Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis).
The director’s history in cinematography shines through. Her debut feature realistically captures frenetic neon party scenes, as well as the complexity of female friendships and the overwhelming confusion, fragility and isolation that descends through heart-wrenching close-ups of Tara.
Wowing at Cannes
The film won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year‘s Cannes Film Festival. Established in 1998, the prize celebrates innovative cinematic styles and storytelling by new and emerging filmmakers from around the world.
This is a significant win. Not only has there only been one previous UK winner (Beautiful People in 1999), but it’s also only the third time a woman has won this prize in its 25-year history. In 2021 the Russian filmmaker Kira Kovalenko won for Unclenching the Fists. And the French duo Lise Akoka and Romane Guéret won in 2022 for The Worst Ones.
The Cannes Film Festival has a problematic history when it comes to championing women filmmakers, so to have consecutive wins by women filmmakers in this category in the last three years is encouraging. Especially as the prize money of €30,000 (£26,000) is in place to support filmmakers with their future projects. Research shows that women face shocking hurdles making their second feature.
The film’s impact
On screen sexual violence against women is frequently dramatised by male directors, but this is beginning to be challenged by female filmmakers. Recent examples include Emerald Fennel’s Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman (2020), a dark comedy revenge drama starring Carey Mulligan who sets out to make men pay for acts of sexual violence against women.
In my research, I explore and reflect upon the intersection between friendship and sexual violence in fiction and documentary filmmaking through the lens of the feminist classic Thelma & Louise (1991). Alarmingly little has changed in the 30 years since Thelma & Louise first screened. A 2021 survey found that 97% of 18 to 24-year-old women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment.
Thelma & Louise’s themes of women’s agency, friendship and societal constraints, sparked conversations about sexual violence and the representation of women on screen. Similarly, Walker’s film provides a thought-provoking and nuanced portrayal of the complexity of consent.
Walker has spoken about her personal experiences of sexual assault at the age of 16. She has expressed her desire for this film to be a talking point for all age groups and genders to discuss consent openly and honestly, and drive change.
The reaction of critics and the audience alike at the screening I attended suggested this film is already making an impact, evoking powerful emotional responses and encouraging people to open up about their experiences.
Walker is a new and exciting director and this film, which was supported by the BFI and Channel 4, also highlights the importance of backing diverse voices and narratives in British independent cinema.