Written response by Hannah Strong
Picture the scene: you're sixteen, you've just finished your GCSEs, and you're finally free from the pressures and rules of high school. You might be looking forward to starting college, sixth form, or an apprenticeship – but first, the long summer beckons, and with it, a welcome opportunity to let loose. For thousands of young people in the UK, their first unaccompanied holiday with their mates is a rite of passage, whether it takes them to Brighton, Bournemouth, or somewhere more exotic.
From 2011 until 2015, BBC Three started airing a reality television show about the phenomenon entitled 'Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents', where teenagers would jet off to the likes of Kos, Ibiza and Magaluf, unknowingly followed by their sneaky mums and dads. These parents would spend a few days watching hidden camera footage and following their kids around the clubs, predictably being scandalised by their uninhibited behaviour. Who could have predicted that coddled teenagers might drink to excess and get off with strangers when let off the leash for the first time? (Occasionally there would be a kid who surprised their parents by being responsible and respectful, but this didn't make for such scintillating television.)
In fairness, the behaviour of Brits abroad in Mediterranean 'party towns' has long been a source of tension between locals and tourists. Across Turkey, Greece and Spain the summer influx of badly behaved, boozy Brits is both an economic boon and a public safety hazard. Not a year goes by without horror stories emerging in the press detailing the injuries, assaults and in the worst cases deaths that occur when large groups of Brits get together in warm climbs for a party. Yet for some reason, British cinema has yet to really capitalise on the phenomenon. The closest we've come is Kevin and Perry Go Large and The Inbetweeners Movie – both of which don't exactly do much for their female characters, presented mostly as interchangeable summer romance options rather than fully developed human beings.
Enter Molly Manning Walker: a breakthrough filmmaker and cinematographer with a lengthy list of short film credits, who also shot Charlotte Regan's acclaimed debut comedy-drama Scrapper earlier this year. Her provocatively titled feature debut How to Have Sex follows a trio of best friends who head to Malia for a holiday, shortly before they get their GCSE results. Girly, giddy and excited by the hijinks that await them, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) charm their way into an upgrade to a room with a pool view, and quickly start planning their week of carnage.
Some archetypes quickly reveal themselves: Skye is the confident, sexually experienced one; Fi is the book-smart but slightly shy lesbian, and Tara is the down-to-earth joker, only a little self-conscious about being a virgin. Their top priority on holiday is hooking up, and the girls quickly buddy up with the older group of revellers next door – sweet joker Badger (Shaun Thomas), posturing ringleader Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and laidback Paige (Laura Ambler). Tara takes a shine to Badger despite Skye's almost immediate disdain. All of them are determined to have the holiday of a lifetime, but as tensions and egos begin to flare under the Grecian sun, Tara finds herself alienated from her friends and in a dangerous position.
Taking stylistic cues from Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar and the unfiltered honesty of Joanna Hogg's Unrelated, How to Have Sex captures the euphoria of unsupervised teendom with impressive realism, from the girls' wardrobe of skin-tight mini dresses to the pounding dance music and flashing lights of the local strip. Manning Walker's authentic approach means you can practically taste the fishbowl cocktails and smell the coconut sunscreen, while the conversations between Tara and her friends are painfully true to life as they navigate the tricky territory of teenage friendships and the uncertain future which waits for them back home. Mia McKenna-Bruce gives a breakout performance as Tara, whose happy-go-lucky attitude masks a more delicate interior. Expecting poor grades from her GCSEs and constantly playing second fiddle to Skye, she's used to being undermined by her so-called bestie – so when Paddy takes an interest in her, Tara is flattered but unsure what to make of his overt advances.
The dynamics between young women and men have rarely been captured with such accuracy, as Tara is forced into a shocking – but all too familiar – position, doubting her own sense of self and attempting to push down the trauma of her experience during what's meant to be a care-free holiday. The juxtaposition between youthful abandon and sudden violation is something that almost every woman has intimate experience with, and How To Have Sex handles it with delicacy and care, centring Tara's emotions and the ways in which young women are forced to downplay our experience and fears, no matter how legitimate.
Yet How to Have Sex is also a film about the relationships between young women, and how frequently these formative friendships are undermined by snide remarks or teenage pettiness. Manning Walker is remarkably honest about the ways in which young women are conditioned by society and the media to undermine each other and compete for male attention as if the most we can hope for is to be seen as desirable by a guy. It's a sobering story, unsentimental and piercing in its clarity, crafted with an immaculate eye for detail that places us right alongside the young protagonist.
Our hearts break for Tara because she's achingly real; if we weren't her as a teenager, we certainly knew a girl like her, hiding her vulnerability under a veneer of jokes and Instagram-ready outfits. She's desperate to grow up, to have sex and be seen as mature, but the world is a cruel place, particularly to young women. Even a seemingly exciting summer holiday can quickly turn into a nightmare in the blink of an eye, and Manning Walker's anti-sensationalist approach underscores the discomforting universality of this story.
It's a headrush of a film, refusing to gloss over the excess of the teenage holiday but never moralising over the idea of teenagers having a good time. Manning Walker instead takes a stark, immersive view of the revels of Tara and her friends, as the audience reckons with the dizzying fallout and the idea that everywhere a young woman goes, she has to protect herself from the threat of violence and entitlement. But as well as being a visceral take on a so-far underutilised part of British culture, How to Have Sex is a landmark in depicting the knotty complications of sexual assault from the perspective of the victim, encouraging empathy and understanding from audiences, validating thousands of people with similar stories.
How to Have Sex announces Molly Manning Walker as a bold new voice in British filmmaking, and Mia McKenna Bruce as a breakthrough acting talent. A glittery trip to the Mediterranean, its powerful inquiry into the tensions of teendom lingers long after the party's over.
HOW TO HAVE SEX is showing in UK cinemas from Friday 3 November.
Hannah Strong is the Digital Editor of Little White Lies magazine, and a culture writer who has written for GQ, i-D, Vulture and The Guardian among other outlets. In 2022 her first book, Sofia Coppola: Forever Young was published by Abrams New York. She can be found on most social media under the handle @thethirdhan or online at HTTP://www.hannahstrong.co.uk.