How to Have Sex: Cannes Film Festival 2023 Review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 98 minutes

Writer/director: Molly Manning Walker

Actors: Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake, Enva Lewis, Shaun Thomas, Samuel Bottomley, Laura Ambler, Eilidh Loan

By Sarah Manvel

It’s very normal in the UK for kids to be allowed to travel with their friends to go celebrate the exams taken when they are sixteen. These trips generally involve going someplace cheap and sunny, where there’s plentiful alcohol and dancing and other kids looking for the same thing. And because these kids are broke and young, the resort town of their choice is often Malia in Crete, a down-market boardwalk of rowdy clubs, cocktails served in punchbowls and young people from all over the UK trying very, very hard to have a good time. So exactly like a regular American spring break, just slightly younger. Malia has featured in several other similarly themed films, the first “Inbetweeners”(2011) movie among them, and it makes the resorts in “Aftersun”(2022) (or the ne plus ultra of ill-advised all-inclusive resort holiday films, “Morvern Callar” (2002)) look like the Four Seasons. It makes the Jersey shore look classy. A picture is being painted here. Writer/director Molly Manning Walker has made a good film but it would have been so much more interesting for her debut if she’d made a happy one. Showing the dark side of somewhere sunny has been done a million times before. Rarely as well as this, of course, but it means as a film it’s impossible to relax and enjoy.

Of course, the girls on this trip, Skye (Lara Peake), Em (Enva Lewis) and Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) are not thinking about the potential for trouble ahead. For Tara at least it’s certainly the first time she’s been anywhere, as her enthusiasm for their crappy hotel room makes clear. But who cares? They have cute new clothes (costume designer George Buxton does a wonderful job here making cheap polyester dresses look excellent), which they are going to wear to the club, where they will get drunk and hopefully have sex! In the next room over are three cute older guys: Badger (Shaun Thomas), Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), and Paige (Laura Ambler), who of course is not a guy at all. Em discreetly checks with Tara if she’s a lesbian, to which Tara can only roar with laughter, because she obviously is (and what transpires between Paige and Em is why this movie is up for the Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes Film Festival). But for all their skimpy clothing and big make-up these girls are young indeed, and this is a British seaside movie, meaning happiness is impossible. 

It’s not all bad, of course; when Tara is alone and wobbling in a club a kind woman named Fi (Eilidh Loan) notices and immediately pulls Tara into her gang, which includes, after checking-out time, bringing her back to their villa in the hills which has its own pool. But Tara refuses to come inside, despite Fi’s entreaties, and lies down for her sleep on a pool float outside in the morning sun. Fi doesn’t push it, which leads to the memorable shot by Nicolas Canniccioni of Tara walking alone down the main drag before the street cleaners have been, picking her way in her party shoes through the piles of trash and vomit. But what ends up happening to Tara happens under everyone’s noses, and not even the kind Em or the sweetheart Badger understand what’s going wrong in time. Skye has a slightly better idea, but something is souring in her friendship with the other girls and the unkind, passive aggressive remarks she continually makes about Tara means she’s the last person she’s going to confide in. 

Tara is still at the age where she’s finding her identity through her friends, and this trip is her growing into the realisation that this will only get you so far. Just look at the friendship between Paddy and Badger, such as it is. Badger has obvious confidence issues as the stunt he agrees to onstage at the beach club makes vividly clear, though Mr Thomas, who played a wannabe white supremacist in “Ali & Ava” (2021), finds the right notes to make Badger utterly endearing. Meanwhile Paddy has too much confidence, for which Mr Bottomley also finds the tricky balance between arrogance and self-knowledge. It’s a darkly attractive combination, even in this delightful movie world where no one ever records strangers acting out. Technical naivety aside, Ms Manning Walker has a terrific ear for the way English teenagers currently talk, most notably when a viciously hungover Skye tells the lads she’s ‘not feeling very jokes right now’ before being sick over the balcony. (“Being jokes” means being a good laugh, someone fun.) Em’s smarts and Skye’s sexual confidence are getting both of them further, faster, but Skye’s a bit jealous that both boys are taken with Tara instead of her and Ms Peake makes the friendship, even with all its jagged edges, feel very lived in. That said, casting the mixed-race Ms Lewis as the most emotionally aware of the three veers dangerously near ‘magical negro’ territory, a bad weakness of English film. But Ms McKenna-Bruce easily carries the film as a young woman who has a clear sense of herself, but that self isn’t one she’s particularly happy with, and she’s got to start deciding what she’s going to do about it. 

So the plot boils down to a young woman learning to make her feelings and experiences known both to herself and to others. Lynne Ramsay’s influence is obvious but while this is a solid film on its own merits, its inability to move past the ordinary limits its appeal. Not everyone can rob a restaurant with a machine gun while wearing a bikini, of course, but the girls in “Spring Breakers” (2012) at least did something new. The trouble is the lack of newness in “How to Have Sex”’s plot is precisely the point. We have to start from the bottom over and over again, and some of us have heard this song before. For a new audience, with their own growing up to do, this movie will be a roaring success. But if this isn’t your first time, you might wish the movie started where it ended, with Tara going home to face the music. 

***Winner of Un Certain Regard Award***


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