‘How To Have Sex’ explores the dark side of Gen Z partying

Molly Manning Walker learned she was a two-time BAFTA nominee at the unholy hour of 5 AM.

The British director was in Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival, premiering the movie she was being honored for, “How To Have Sex.” A story about a rite of passage summer holiday gone wrong for one teenage reveller, Manning Walker’s characters think nothing of drinking ’til dawn. But in the cold dark of the mountains, with not a fishbowl cocktail or foam party to be found, the director put the kettle on and celebrated with a cup of tea.

That’s not to say Manning Walker is a world apart from the young subjects of her film. “Some memories from those holidays are still the best memories of my life,” she recalled.

The director said the film was informed by her time in Magaluf in Majorca, Spain, one of a handful of Mediterranean island resorts co-opted by Brits to cut loose. “How To Have Sex” is set in another, Malia, Greece, and features a familiar backdrop for generations who’ve spent a cheap week clubbing and making questionable decisions with their newfound independence.

These are the kind of holidays that prompt stories that will be retold for a lifetime. Other stories may never see the light of day. Manning Walker explores with keen precision what happens when the fun stops, as it does for 16-year-old Tara (a breakout Mia McKenna-Bruce) when her first sexual experiences are coercion and assault.

The film, Manning Walker’s first feature, was a hit at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won top prize in the Un Certain Regard competition. It has since been nominated for outstanding British film, outstanding debut and best casting at the BAFTAs. Moreover, it has cracked open a conversation about consent in the UK, where it has already had a successful theatrical run, and has found itself being used as an education tool, says the director.

Ahead of the film’s US release on February 2, the writer-director reflected on the film’s journey, and her surprise as its universal appeal.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mia McKenna-Bruce as Tara, the lead in "How To Have Sex." - Courtesy MUBI
Mia McKenna-Bruce as Tara, the lead in "How To Have Sex." - Courtesy MUBI

CNN: For better or for worse, there’s a lot about “How To Have Sex” that’s distinctly British. You’ve taken the film around the world. Have you received any interesting questions or differing views from non-Brits while you’ve been on your travels?

Manning Walker: It’s been interesting how many people it resonates with. We were in Australia and it was “schoolies,” in America it’s spring break and in some European countries people would say, “Oh, we did camping trips.” Everyone had their own version of it.

What was your first building block for the film?

I was hanging out with some old mates that we went on lots of these holidays with. At the time I’d assumed that everyone there was having the best time of their lives. And I think acknowledging that everyone had their own anxieties within those trips, that we were sort of pretending and covering up, we started to realize how much pretence there is at that age.  We’d all pressurize each other into having sexual experiences – or trying to gain experience – rather than asking questions like “How are you feeling?”

These holidays are a rite of passage – particularly the sexual dimension to them. Is it too straightforward to condone or condemn them, and what comes of these trips, or are they just a symptom of something wider?

I didn’t want to make too much of a negative comment on clubbing or partying, because some formative memories are in those spaces. I was trying to essentially be non-judgemental about any one space, and (instead) talk about society as a whole, but using one holiday to encapsulate that.

A lot of people resonate with the film who haven’t gone on a trip. And I think that’s because in society we put so much pressure on young men to know exactly what they’re doing, and be powerful, and run the intimacy. Also there’s so much pressure on young women to act a certain way or get rid of their virginity. I think we have to look at, culturally, how we teach young people how to have sex. There’s such a distinct lack of female pleasure – information around female pleasure – and I think that adds to all this pressure.

Lara Peake, Enva Lewis, Mia McKenna-Bruce as three British teens on holiday in Malia, Greece in  "How To Have Sex." - Courtesy MUBI
Lara Peake, Enva Lewis, Mia McKenna-Bruce as three British teens on holiday in Malia, Greece in "How To Have Sex." - Courtesy MUBI

The film makes the point that consent isn’t enough. Was that always baked into the story you wanted to tell?

Definitely. For me, consent has become very binary. Everyone talks about “yes” and “no.” And actually we should be looking at if two people are having a good time, if they’re enjoying themselves and each other’s company. I think in general, in life we should be asking people how they are and checking in with friends and making sure that everyone’s okay. I think hopefully the message of the film is that we could be kinder to each other, and we could examine the pressure that we’re putting on each other.

When you’re dealing with a subject like this, how do you protect your cast?

We had intimacy coordinators on set and all those scenes were highly choreographed and blocked out and really rehearsed. But it was bigger than that. The culture that we wanted to provide on set was that if anyone felt anything at any time, they could stop the set and talk about it in that moment. And there were times where we did stop the set and discuss stuff. But also, we played football every Sunday. We had barbecues. We made sure that everyone felt that they were part of a team that was running in the same direction.

I interviewed Thomas Vinterberg a few years ago, for “Another Round,” and he spoke at length about how hard drunk acting is. Your cast is having no such problems. How did you get them there?

It was obviously a big part of the audition process. Often people would come in and they would be amazing in all the other scenes, and then do drunk acting and they would fall flat. It became quite a big thing. (On set) we did a bit of a ritual before any of the drunk scenes, which was to spin on the spot and then call action and they would like stumble out into the shot. But yeah, they’re all very good.

Director Molly Manning Walker and actress Mia McKenna-Bruce pose during the 76th Cannes Film Festival, May 19, 2023. - VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images
Director Molly Manning Walker and actress Mia McKenna-Bruce pose during the 76th Cannes Film Festival, May 19, 2023. - VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images

The film had an instant impact at Cannes last year, and had a successful UK release, and now it’s award season. It might be too early to discuss its legacy, but what can you share of the conversations that have followed the film, or even any positive experiences that have come from it?

The response has been crazy. In general, we expected women to feel seen, but we didn’t really expect on what scale, and that’s been pretty huge.

We took it into a school recently to teach consent and to start getting it into the curriculum – which for me was the most emotional part of the journey, because there were some kids that didn’t see either of the scenes as assault. And two boys who, on surface level, could look quite aggressive, stood up and they said, “Listen man, you can’t do that. It’s not just about ‘yes.’” They started teaching the other kids in the class about (sexual) assault. That was a real emotional moment, because if we give the kids the power to teach each other about consent, then for me, that’s radical.

“How To Have Sex” is released in US cinemas on February 2.

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