Pre-word: I would advise some discretion in watching the film, it may be triggering in the form of scenes of rape.
I mentally steadied myself going into Hyde Park Picture House for this one. On the one hand I was incredibly excited to see Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut, especially after seeing her work in Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper as director of photography. On the other, I was apprehensive at how graphically the film was going to delve into the implied themes from the trailer. Walker’s trailer for How to Have Sex was the perfect taster for the film without falling into the all too common trap of revealing not only the plot, but all its twists and turns in two minutes. We settled into our seats, flasks of tea in hand and a quiet, shared atmosphere of intrigue at how Walker was going to tell her story - an experience only a good trailer can facilitate.
McKenna-Bruce, despite her twenty six years, is completely believable as a sixteen year old, fresh out the door of her GCSE exams, half skipping, half running to the airport and onto the plane that promises to transport her to her rite of passage in becoming a woman. The shared cries of ‘Oo-ah Malia’ and the barely-contained excitement of the girl group taking their seats on the plane immediately transports the viewer to the initial buzz that only the beginning of a holiday can initiate. Walker gives us an honest trio in the form of the ring leader Skye (Lara Peake), the well-meaning but largely unaware Em (Enva Lewis) and Tara (Mia McKenna Bruce), our protagonist, desperate to have her first sexual experience. We are a part of their closet moments, sharing chips dripping in sauce in the familiar Styrofoam takeaway boxes, slurred declarations of love whilst they slump against the Grecian hotel walls. However, we are also there for the unspoken tensions that grow primarily between Skye and Tara, especially Skye’s uninformed evaluation of Tara and Paddy’s sexual experiences and her dismissive statements that effectively trap Tara in a sombre silence of suffering.
The frenzied, hedonistic energy the film first served as the girls blew off their post-exam exhilaration quickly descends into a dark exploration of Tara’s internal suffering, as she grapples with the expectation of an idealised “first time” being shattered by the experience of male sexual coercion. Walker delivers one of the film’s most powerful, silence-inducing and sobering moments in between the hazy flashbacks of party scenes as we watch Tara centre stage walk back slowly through the derelict strip and can only imagine what she has just suffered. We build up to this point through cuts between Em and Skye joking to the boys across the balcony, teasingly questioning Tara’s whereabouts until their smiles fade and fear sets in as it becomes clear that no one knows where she is. And we are left hanging in the balance, fearing the worst.
The film is so realistic it almost feels closer to a documentary covering the chaos of the booze-fuelled strip than a reenactment. Walker has achieved the same feat that Charlotte Wells accomplished in Aftersun, that quintessential brit-abroad style holiday. Both directors have managed to encapsulate the constant beat that the cheap (and sometimes cheerful) “all-inclusives” have playing in the background. As someone who has been on that post A-Level holiday - Ayia Napa was our choice of poison - the film is so clearly informed by experience. The wardrobe choices are uncanny, neon numbers made out of very little fabric and selectively draped so that they cover only the most intimate areas populate the screen and successfully capture the spectacle that is the party scene of the European islands. We have met every character Walker gives us a hundred times over, most poignantly in the form of Badger. The slightly older, somewhat repulsive, but loveable, party animal who declares an onstage blow-job to be the ‘best moment of his life’ despite having no recollection of it. Yet it is the later, quieter moments shared between Tara and Badger that feel in some ways the most frustrating as he is the closest we come to a hero for Tara.
Walker cleverly divides the blame across the group and no character is allowed to evade it. Apart from the main perpetrator of Paddy, Skye’s scornful disregard for Tara’s clear change in demeanour and even Em’s more innocent lack of important questioning has the audience sitting in agitating frustration as Tara goes through the ordeal entirely alone. Her youth especially makes it all the more uncomfortable to watch. Badger proves to be the most complex in his culpability, as his actions in walking her home at a distance, making her a cup of tea and tucking her in feel close to brotherly and provide us with a brief, welcome relief as Tara is looked after. Yet his consideration for her welfare is tainted by his passive silence that is loudest in the flickering of his eyes between Tara and Paddy. The most defeating and deafening cry for help takes place on the boys’ balcony moments after the second time Paddy rapes Tara. He clearly reads her upset expression and we can assume this may not be the first time Badger has witnessed the aftermath of Paddy’s sickening behaviour. Possibly the most heart-wrenching moment of the film is the close-up of McKenna-Bruce’s face as she and Badger share a long stare in which no words are needed to tell him what has happened. He then becomes the symbol of the enabling friend that drops the half-hearted “I’ve known him all my life…” line and the lack of consequences for Paddy’s actions speak to the reality of male friendships that perpetuate such rape culture.
I was slightly taken aback at Walker’s bold decision to actively show scenes of rape - which most filmmakers dance around in euphemisms and implicit montages. However, the choice is largely the crux of why her film is so important. It is arresting to witness the clear power imbalance in Tara and Paddy’s relationship be manipulated by Paddy for his own sexual gratification. For audience members watching, it can provoke an uncomfortable reflective experience in which they are forced to question if they have ever prioritised their “desires” at the expense of the comfort and consent of a sexual partner. Where lines of consent blur into more of a grey area, Walker powerfully showcases the clear and moral black and white of the situation.
Ultimately, How to Have Sex is a painfully real exploration of women who crucially lack the right words and support in confronting their own rape experiences. Walker so brilliantly gives her audience the necessary insight into those critical situations that aren’t the act itself, but the fallout both before and after in which the surrounding characters are also held accountable.
This film is such an important watch – it’s not an easy one, but everyone needs to see it.
Words: Ruby Truman, she/her