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(The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs September 7-17 and HtN has tons of coverage coming your way! Check out M.M. O’Toole’s movie review of How To Have Sex. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

There’s nothing like partying under lights and being wild with your besties. Three young Londoners at the center of Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut How To Have Sex are ready for the summer of their lives. Full of vitality, it is a stunningly-told exploration of contemporary female adolescence that breaks most of the coming-of-age film tropes. There are no afterschool hijinks, relationship dramas, or even that many pairings to ship. Our trio’s journey highlights both the bliss of being young and free while also providing a brutal sense of realism of what women of any age group can face, especially when surrounded by horny, reckless, and oblivious men. With a pulse-pounding electronic soundtrack and strong breakout performances, Walker’s film is a fresh take on the coming-of-age genre.

The second the film starts, you can already feel the summer heat and smell the suntan lotion in the air. Best friends Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) arrive in the Greek resort town of Malia for a week-long vacay, fresh off pushing through their GSCE exams. When they’re not anxious about what marks they get, they splash around on the beach and get full-on pissed sipping on fishbowls of alcoholic mixes without fear of consequences. They only have two goals on this trip: party hard and have sex with as many people as possible. However you may judge these three teens at first, make no mistake there is real love between them. Seeing their bond unfold makes you want them to protect one another from the stakes they will soon face.

Tara, the more zestful, yet shy one of the group, feels a higher sense of pressure on the “having sex” front as she yearns to lose her virginity on the trip. Things may start to look promising for her as she gets catcalled one morning from the balcony of Badger (Shaun Thomas). “It’s all very Romeo & Juliet,” Skye cleverly jokes about the duo’s introduction. Pretty soon, the affable yet scatterbrained Badger joins the group of friends along with his pals Paddy (Samuel Bottomly) and Paige (Laura Ambler) where they spend their days hitting the bars, swimming pools, and packed raves before crashing into one another’s beds. Tara has better chemistry with the more easygoing Badger, but it’s the more cocksure ladies-man Paddy that she has her eye on. Even Skye presses her to make Paddy her ultimate target and meanwhile, Em and Paige begin a fiery connection of their own. Even when Paddy makes the moves on Tara (at one point he makes sure to get a “yes” from her), she somewhat feels compelled to accept them regardless of what she may be feeling deep down. But one thing this film requires from its viewers is to closely examine the power dynamics and body language before you consider what’s truly “consensual.”

As the film progresses, it enters into more silent territory compared to its roaring and stimulating first half. After a night of hard partying and beachside escapades, there are questions regarding the circumstances of that evening. Tara’s own experiences of losing her virginity take her from wanting to live her best life to becoming a more nervous, wary spectator. This is where breakout star McKenna-Bruce’s performance reaches its peak. Her powerhouse portrayal of a young woman grappling with trauma and isolation is affecting in a manner of not only conjures up sympathy for her character but also calls attention to the thrilling expectations of sexual encounters versus the more grim reality of it. Even after the film’s mood takes a 180-degree turn, we begin to see the differences and conflicts within each of the three friends. Tara closes herself off, while Skye thoughtlessly puts people down, oblivious to others’ feelings, and Em acts as peacekeeper. 

Manning Walker excels in changing the story’s tone and character dynamics without losing its incentive. Similar to Andrea Arnold and Eliza Hittman, she thoroughly portrays the hardships of female adolescence through a more authentic lens while maintaining its alluring cinematic aesthetic. Cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni brilliantly captures both the bliss and inner turmoil of the characters through both sun-kissed and neon-lit framing. There’s a poignant element to the film regarding the aftermath of sexual assault, navigating consent, and starting a dialogue. But once Tara finally begins to let her guard down and opens up, there is a glimmer of hope on the other side. Manning Walker’s ever-so-relevant feature debut will make you think long and hard about the tough questions, but in the end, there is catharsis at the end of the tunnel.

– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)

2023 Toronto Film Festival; Molly Manning Walker; How to Have Sex movie review

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