Trigger warning: this review contains mention of sexual assault.
While Molly Manning Walker’s directorial debut How to Have Sex was one of the quieter releases of late 2023/early 2024, its debut at the Cannes Film Festival was incredibly well-received. It won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard category, in addition to receiving numerous accolades across awards season, from the British Independent Film Awards to the European Film Awards. After having the privilege to view it at an early screening, it’s not hard to understand why.
How to Have Sex is an unfiltered examination of consent, and delves into the raw reality of coming of age as a young woman in a society where the idea of sex and drinking is deemed an imperative. The film follows Tara (Mia Mckenna-Bruce), and her best friends Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) as they depart on their high school graduation trip to Malia. Things quickly turn sour after they befriend a group consisting of two men, Badger (Shaun Thomas) and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), as well as Paige (Laura Ambler), who are all staying in the hotel room adjacent to theirs.
One of the things that instantly struck me the most was the realism embedded in the authentic performances and dialogue. The film felt more like watching a documentary, and at times, akin to a reality show. It offered a disarming sense of familiarity, particularly through its all-too recognisable drinking culture in Europe and the UK, which very much mirrors Australia’s climate. The largely unknown cast worked in the film’s favour as the audience could fully immerse themselves in the world of the characters, and not think about the actors outside of the film’s perimeters. Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake and Shaun Thomas offer particularly compelling and nuanced performances. The nauseating tension is largely achieved through the physicality, with some of the film’s most powerful moments being free from dialogue. McKenna-Bruce’s portrayal of Tara is nothing short of phenomenal, her ultimate power lying in the subtlety of her facial expressions and isolation in scenes. Every viewer will be able to recognise the traits of people they know — or perhaps themselves — within these characters.
The film also offers insight into the complexities of female friendships. Tara and Skye embody aspects of the Madonna-Whore complex, where Tara’s virginity, and therefore the innocence projected onto her, is a focal point of her characterisation. Skye’s sexuality is conveyed as being central to her identity, as she frequently mentions sex, constantly making digs at Tara’s sexual inexperience to mask her jealousy. However, as experienced by many young women, Tara does possess an innate desperation to be desired and perceived as attractive, especially as sex is tied to the self-worth of her peers. Grappling with the oppressive reality of being sexualised by men, she is confronted with multiple instances of social pressure, and is ultimately left disillusioned and experiencing discomfort.
The costuming enhanced the characterisation, with the girls donning cheap fast-fashion dresses of similar styles, reflecting their collective lacking sense of self. Throughout the film, Tara and Skye share clothes, most notably swapping numerous green garments, a colour synonymous with jealousy.
Additionally, Tara is always seen wearing a necklace with the word ‘angel’ on it. After a crucial scene, the camera lingers on the necklace as she wanders alone, traumatised and barefoot through a deserted Malia. The chaotic mise-en-scene of broken glass, plastic cups, trash, and blinking neon lights serves as a distressing reminder of the carnage of the previous night and Tara’s traumatic experience. The film’s cinematographer Nicholas Cannicioni took advantage of the party setting, employing neon colour palettes and flashing strobe lights to convey the highs and lows of nightlife. Initially, the technicolour world of Malia’s nightclubs looks alluring, but the non-stop throbbing bass and flashing lights is starkly contrasted by the harsh daylight, a brutal reality check as the group attempt to recover from their late nights out.
The film is comparable to Spring Breakers (2012), both in terms of its subject matter and its neon-drenched cinematography. Cannicioni also makes interesting use of mirrors, utilising multiple mirrors on a character’s face to emphasise their reactions, and implying the fragmentation of the group dynamic.
At its core, How to Have Sex is a raw depiction of girlhood and coming-of-age in a culture that places high value on sexuality, hedonism and having a good time no matter the cost. Each character is an obvious by-product of their environment despite being visibly disconcerted by it. However, they choose not to speak up out of fear of being the one to ruin everybody else’s good time. This speaks to a wider pattern of placing the collective over the individual, particularly within female friendships, as well as the lack of empowerment for young women to communicate their needs.
The characters also avoid speaking up either in support of, or in opposition of their friends. In a poignant moment, a male character’s immediate response to discomfort with his male friend’s behaviour, is to justify his history with and reasoning for being friends. Therefore, the perpetrator is excused, despite the apt description of being a “nightmare of a guy”.
The film occupies a space of anti-TikTok girlhood, an image sold to us of ribbons and pearls and divine femininity, whereby girlhood is positioned as a commodified aesthetic, rather than a tangible experience. It deviates from the average coming-of-age film that typically ends with the characters hopeful and looking towards the future of adulthood, instead offering gut wrenchingly candid insight into life after a sexual assault.
How to Have Sex encapsulates what it means to navigate consent and feeling the suffocating weight of isolation, despite being surrounded by people. When I glanced around at the predominantly female audience in the cinema, the emotion and tension in the room was palpable, and I knew that, like myself, nearly every woman in the room had experienced this, or knew somebody who had shared similar experiences.
As the credits rolled and the audience remained in a reverent hush — reminiscent of a trance — it was evident that How to Have Sex had deeply resonated with the lived experiences of its audience. Yes, the film offered few answers and was devoid of a much-needed catharsis. Yet, when we watched Tara at the airport, ready to head home and face the future, I couldn’t help but feel a glimmer of hope for her and every other person like her, who have endured that one devastation and had their lives forever changed.