‘How to Have Sex’ review: Molly Manning Walker’s sensational, high-energy debut an equally urgent cautionary tale of consent | Cannes
If asked to describe How to Have Sex in one word, the answer, however strange, comes easily in the form of a place: an airport. These expansive hubs represent the connections of both the world’s many wonders and the minutiae of the human consciousness. They are inherently mysterious yet magical places brimming with an endless array of emotions, people, and possibilities. The excitement of an adventurous getaway is always coupled with the angst of rushing to your gate, packing your life into tiny bottles, an itinerary easily gone awry. The chaos of a melting pot brings the potential for unexpected bliss and disaster alike. This complex distillation is what makes this the perfect summation of the energy of the film and why it fittingly bookends writer-director Molly Manning Walker’s magnificent, piercing feature debut.
What falls in between is a cautionary tale as a group of three British best mates – Tara, Skye, and Em – who party non-stop on holiday in Malia, Crete, with one seemingly important catch: Tara, played by the charming and fantastic Mia McKenna-Bruce, is still a virgin. So the trip looks to become a rite of passage for her while they await their exam results which will determine their chances of attending university. So, what better way to escape a sobering reality than with a torrent of booze, cheesy chips, and a deafening, bass-heavy club soundtrack, spryly bouncing from club to club, then another club, next place, all with no sleep. You can’t help but marvel at their tenacity to continuously rage, yet it’s also a relief to know Tara’s human when she awakens and groans “Everything hurts.”
They quickly become mates with their neighbors at the resort, complete with a phallic swimming pool, who include potential love interests, Badger and Paddy. At first glance, the guys represent extremely different ideals: Badger whistles at Tara to get her attention, he has this garish, oversized tattoo of a bright red kiss on his neck, and drives cars for a living, while Paddy is fit, easygoing, and rallies just as hard as Tara. However, neither of their interactions with her at a day party later on carry the sensitivity she wants in a guy, especially when sexual acts become public, competitive party games. What follows signals a stark shift in tone that opens a dialogue about sexual consent and assault. Manning Walker highlights the unease this topic brings, especially if and how the victim decides to disclose details. She shows a masterful finesse of the subject by urging the viewer to read between the lines, be cognizant of body language, and to understand that consent isn’t one and done or one-size-fits-all.
As far as spring break movies go, there are two that immediately resemble How to Have Sex for vastly different reasons. The first, relating to a film that won in a different parallel section last year at the Cannes Film Festival, is Aftersun. Containing multiple narrative and stylistic similarities, they both showcase a collection of fragmented memories from a protagonist struggling with an overwhelming internal conflict on a European holiday. McKenna-Bruce and Paul Mescal have a fine control over their characters’ self-consciousness and are portrayed in an equally sensitive manner. The other visually-similar comparison brings to mind 2012’s Spring Breakers, its bold and shocking vision of a vacation gone wrong. Although, the violent and darkly surreal descent these girls take is more concerned with its provocative appearance than it is with purposeful substance. Both neon-donned friend groups would likely get along, but this group of Gen Zers is more relatable and rooted in a believable coming-of-age reality.
How to Have Sex is an overwhelmingly funny romp that is engaging and heartfelt from beginning to end. Manning Walker and her charismatic cast weave the timely and heavy subject matter fluidly with its electric energy to create a summer smash-hit that flies by and will leave you singing Romy and Fred again…’s lyrics “You don’t have to be so strong” for days on end. It reminds us to cherish the moments with supportive friends who will hold your hair back and always run alongside you, no matter the destination.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival where How to Have Sex premiered in the Un Certain Regard section. The film will be distributed by MUBI.