“In season, Malia is carnage”: Molly Manning Walker on How To Have Sex

Cannes prizewinner How to Have Sex is an exuberant but devastating take on female friendship and teenage sexual awakening.

1 November 2023

By Rachel Pronger

Mia McKenna Bruce as Tara in How To Have Sex (2023)
Sight and Sound

Following three best friends as they embark on a rowdy girls’ holiday on the Greek party island of Malia, Molly Manning Walker’s blistering first feature How to Have Sex captures the chaos, mischief and excess of British teens abroad. Fuelled by silly jokes, cheesy chips and endless sticky vodka shots, the girls tear up the town, and reluctant virgin Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) sees an opportunity to finally undergo a crucial rite of passage. But behind Tara’s bravado lies a young woman trying to find herself. Manning Walker offers a nuanced exploration of the effects of a highly sexualised, casually misogynist subculture.

Molly Manning Walker, director of How To Have Sex (2023)

Rachel Pronger: In the credits you thank “anyone Molly was ever on a girls’ holiday with”. I assume you drew on personal experience for the film?

Molly Manning Walker: Yes, definitely. I went on maybe four girls’ holidays, to Ayia Napa, Ibiza, Magaluf… I went to Ibiza three times in one summer for some reason. I don’t often see the people I went on holiday with, but we met up for a wedding in Ibiza and started talking. There were these memories that I thought I had expanded in my head – like the onstage blowjob scene in the film, which we actually saw in Magaluf – but everyone had the same memories. I started to think about how that affected our ideas of sex and consent. I was writing something else at the time, so I went back and was like, “I think I need to tell this story. I need to dig into what we experienced.”

How did you manage to capture that messy ‘Brits abroad’ atmosphere so vividly?

We had to shoot out of season because in season it’s carnage. We did all the party scenes in the first two weeks and the locals were amazing, they gave us the run of the strip. The extras were cast from the island, which meant they really understood the party scene.

Those scenes are completely convincing. How did you shoot those drunken exchanges in bars, clubs and ladies’ loos?

Our producer had a technique that was spinning around on the spot and calling action so the actors would sort of stumble into it. It’s so hard to do drunk! One of the tricks is to try to prove to the other person that you’re not drunk. The scene in the toilets originally had full dialogue, but I stripped it all out and just let them wobble about.

Mia McKenna-Bruce as Mia and Shaun Thomas as Badger in How To Have Sex (2023)

Mia McKenna-Bruce is fantastic as Tara, with a mixture of vulnerability, strength and humour. How did you cast her?

We thought Tara would be the trickiest to find, but actually I saw Mia’s tape and straight away I went, “Damn, she’s the one.” I think often the onscreen concept of a victim is someone who’s traumatised and can’t come back from it, and I really wanted to fight against that. We talked about Tara being the loudest in the room, being able to crack a joke at an inappropriate moment, in the way that we all do to try to get out of hard situations. Mia is a real force.

The film is about the effect that a sexualised society has on young people, and especially how this shapes their coming of age and questions of consent.

Everybody is asking about the meaning of the title, and I think what sums it up is that we thought we were meant to have sex in a certain way. The pressure comes from all angles – the opposite sex, the environment, your friendship [group], alcohol… Imagine a world where there was less pressure and no preconception of what your first sexual experience would be. We’re so far down the rabbit hole of what people think a sexual experience should be and, for young people, that’s really dangerous.

Do you have any favourite coming-of-age films?

I think Fish Tank [2009] is my all-time favourite film. Do you know The Tribe [2014], the Ukrainian film? And La Haine [1995], could we call that coming-of-age? I don’t know, I feel like it’s not just teenagers, I feel like I’m always coming of age!

There’s been a series of great British debuts recently by the likes of Charlotte Regan [Scrapper], Charlotte Wells [Aftersun, 2022] and Georgia Oakley [Blue Jean, 2022] – all of which explore the lives of girls and young women. You were the cinematographer on Scrapper. Do you feel like you’re part of a wave?

It feels like a revolution. Internationally, there’s this huge push of female filmmakers and it ’s amazing to be a part of. I couldn’t have made this film without Charlotte Regan. She’s like a best friend but also a mentor. There’s a real sense of community and trust. There’s always [been a] boys’ club, and it’s hard – when women have often been pushed aside – to find your girls’ club. But now it feels like it’s forming, big time

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