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‘How to Have Sex’: A Journey through Adolescence, Ambiguity, and Existentialism | Film Review

"How to Have Sex," by Molly Manning Walker, is a compelling film exploring youth, consent, and existential questions
How to Have Sex (2023)

Film Review
How to Have Sex
Directed by Molly Manning Walker

Those Bodies in the Sun: The ‘First Time’ of Three Adolescents

by Federico Pontiggia

Despite the esteemed recognition it’s received, “How to Have Sex” runs the risk of being undervalued, of sinking into the ordinary. Yet, to dismiss it as just another quick and dirty coming-of-age tale, a fleeting chronicle of ‘the first time’, would be a mistake. This debut from London-born Molly Manning Walker, class of 1993, premiered at Cannes 2023’s Un Certain Regard – winning the category – and opened the recent Alice in the City festival, deserves your attention.

For those in their teens, or thereabouts, the film will resonate with the real-time experience of the promises and disappointments of that “best vacation of our lives.” Those in their thirties will navigate memories, balancing roguish nostalgia with a predominant sense of relief, under the category of “we made it through.”

The film nods to numerous influences and parallels, such as Charlotte Wells’ similarly debut “Aftersun” (2022) and Harmony Korine’s ingenious “Spring Breakers” (2012). What sets it apart, however, is its empathetic, fresh, and insightful tone. Manning Walker, also the screenwriter, sets her camera in the precarious landscape of the post #Metoo era, capturing sex, consent, and awareness through the lens of three British teenagers vacationing in Crete. She deftly avoids cliches and stereotypes to focus intimately on her characters’ internal worlds.

Mia McKenna-Bruce as Mia and Shaun Thomas as Badger in How To Have Sex (2023)
Mia McKenna-Bruce as Mia and Shaun Thomas as Badger in How To Have Sex (2023)

The film does not adhere to a thesis-driven approach; rather, it offers a sociological examination and psychological introspection, impressively conveyed through subtraction, unsaid words, and off-screen events. Focusing more on souls than bodies, the protagonist Tara, an excellent Mia McKenna-Bruce (whose only fault may be her age, 25), and her friends Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) will discover their limits in unbridled fun.

Reflecting on reunions with her high school friends, the director realized the impact those vacations had on how each perceives sex, leading to a film that captures the best and worst moments of many people’s lives – a fitting and cheeky title.

With a certain clarity, “How to Have Sex” embraces ambiguity, as Heraklion, despite being by the sea, feels more like a swamp. “Sex in Malia is not a question of victims and predators but a war of attrition in which nobody gets satisfaction,” Damon Wise aptly wrote in Deadline. This could be extended to other party destinations, but the environmental setting only shapes, not exhausts, the sexual narrative, which is truly an emergence of existential issues. There’s a question underlying the title that makes one’s pulse quicken: “Why to Have Sex?” The answer comes at the airport, less strangled than it should be: Manning Walker is not afraid of simplicity, does not overly favor women, and is presumably more mature, both behind the camera and in life, than her age suggests. This might be true for Tara too, but with evident dissatisfaction.

Il Fatto Quotidiano, January 27, 2024

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