How To Have Sex Review: An Essential Lens On A Woman Desecrated [Cannes 2023]

Since the dawn of time, women have capitulated to men. Men have been manipulating and breaking women for their pleasure and their gain as long as there has been pleasure, and as long as there has been anything to gain. In Molly Manning Walker's absolutely essential directorial debut "How To Have Sex," we come face to face with the realities of those impulses, and how men still betray women in this way, even those who have yet to surrender their bright, wide-eyed innocence. The writer-director expertly captures both a sense of beautiful, optimistic whimsy young people have as they start to embark on their coming of age, and the dark prison of isolation that comes when an unexpected tragedy sets fire to the hope that lives inside them.

"How To Have Sex" follows Mia McKenna-Bruce's Tara, a 16-year-old Southern English girl who takes a trip to Greece in a rite-of-passage pilgrimage to party. She and two of her best friends hole up in a cheap motel and spend all their time and money on getting drunk and getting guys — but when the girls meet a group of Northern boys who seem too good to be true, the trip slips down a dark path full of pain, confusion, and regret disguised as a rager of a time. 

Capturing English youth culture

Right off the bat, it's easy to be struck by the specificity and uniqueness of the world Walker creates on screen. It's fully developed with a personality and an edge, wholly true to the incessant drinking culture the youth of the United Kingdom is known for. It feels unique because that particular sect of English youth culture — and specifically the pre-Sixth Form ritual of spending a raucous holiday on a party island — hasn't really been covered in independent film before, and certainly not in a film of this caliber. It's clear Walker knows it well, and has experienced the crazy things she wrote into the film, and because of that closeness with the elements that shape the film's setting, the audience feels the richness and wants to dive in alongside the three girls.

To the same end, Walker's impeccable script feels true to the characters she creates, filling their mouths with endearing British slang and declarations of love between best mates. Walker captures the pure, unfettered spirit of being young and navigating relationships — platonic, romantic, transactional, or otherwise — through her weighty yet realistic dialogue. The dialogue is in part as well-placed as it is because of the natural and skilled performances of Walker's mostly unknown cast. Enva Lewis and Lara Peake excel as Tara's besties, especially in the way they represent two different sides of the teenage coin: kind, considerate, and caring juxtaposed against calculated, jealous, and manipulative. Lewis' character has a really sweet sense of tenderness toward Tara, while Peake's character approaches their friendship with Tara with guarded jealousy.

Expertly embodying archetypal characters

The film's central two boys, Samuel Bottomley's Paddy and Shaun Thomas' Badger, are also so damn perfect in their archetypal performances. Bottomley expertly embodies the kind of capital-L lad that tends to be at the center of matters of consent, oscillating between charming and sleazy. He does an excellent job of hiding his intentions, and an even better job of letting his desires take the wheel at the expense of someone else. Thomas' charm far exceeds his mate's, though, in the sense that it is pure and completely genuine, allowing Tara to actually feel safe initially with the boys. The actor is particularly devastating as a lad's lad who has his worldview completely rocked by the events of the trip, and it's beautifully sad to watch how much emotion he can convey with just his eyes in some of the film's most effective scenes. Thomas and McKenna-Bruce have electric chemistry and a connection that makes them seem like real friends — like they would actually be able to build a lasting bond over the course of a short trip.

An absolute revelation

But ultimately, the mouthy, sweet, and carefree McKenna-Bruce is the one to watch in this film without a doubt. The young actress — who has a somewhat lengthy resume already, though it's mostly full of BBC-backed projects that haven't exactly become hits in America — is an absolute revelation in every single beat of the film. She pulls out all the stops as her character cycles between elated, defeated, and nearly broken, doing so much introspective acting in several scenes where the endgame is simply to get into her headspace as the events of the trip unfold. She wears her thoughts on her face in a way that feels honest, especially for a 16-year-old girl, and it is utterly heartbreaking to watch her crumble as the film careens to a head in the final act. McKenna-Bruce is absolutely the British actress to watch right now, and frankly, it's a sin if she — and the film itself—doesn't blow up as a result of her powerhouse performance.

"How To Have Sex" is less of a PSA about consent and more of a realistic, subtly tragic character study about what it means to be desecrated as a human being. The film, with its pulsating score and club-scape visuals, is only interested in showing its audience the truth about situations like the one that unfolds throughout the story — and Molly Manning Walker's first film feels like an expert, surefire debut as a result of the skill with which she (and the brilliant collaborators she surrounds herself with on and off-camera) elicits every subtle gut punch the movie has to offer. 

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10