Filmmaker speaks on ‘How to Have Sex’ and sexual assault

Lara Peake, Enva Lewis and Mia McKenna-Bruce in ‘How to Have Sex.’
Lara Peake, Enva Lewis and Mia McKenna-Bruce in ‘How to Have Sex.’ (Photo: Courtesy of MUBI)

Out writer/director Molly Manning Walker won the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her feature debut, “How to Have Sex.” The film, opening Feb. 9 at the PFS at the Bourse, has an almost documentary feel to it as Manning Walker immerses viewers in the lives of three female friends who are on a summer holiday where they plan to drink, dance and have sex.

As they arrive at the hotel, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is hoping to lose her virginity, Skye (Lara Peake) is sizing up the possibilities, and lesbian Em (Enva Lewis) is mostly practical. When Tara meets Badger (Shaun Thomas), who is staying in the room next door, she fancies him. Skye is keen on Badger’s “fit” friend, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), while Em has her sights on the guys’ friend, Paige (Laura Ambler). As the characters drink, party, vomit, and pass out, Tara does lose her virginity in a fraught encounter of sexual assault.

Manning Walker deftly captures the wild parties and debauchery, leaving viewers with a contact hangover. McKenna-Bruce gives a knockout performance as Tara, who processes several painful emotional moments over the course of what should have been a good time. The filmmaker spoke with PGN about her remarkable coming-of-age film, “How to Have Sex.”

The film starts out as a freewheeling party, but gets more serious over time, packing an emotional wallop by the end. Can you talk about creating “How to Have Sex”?
It was always this fine line of not making it too dark and basing it in a reality where everyone has this kind of gray area. There was lightness and fun, and not everyone was realizing what was happening to them. It was about trying to create the complications.

The film is not about sex, but about sexual assault. It is about consent or lack thereof. It is sure to resonate strongly with female viewers who have experienced not dissimilar situations. What prompted you to tell this story and in this way?
I have had experience with sexual assault myself, and I felt there wasn’t really the conversation on screen that I had experienced. I wanted to open the conversation up in a different way that wasn’t super violent and oversexualized.

The party setting is very deliberate. Can you talk about these holidays Tara and her friends take?
In British culture especially, we go on these holidays to break free and experience stuff away from home. There is a lot of pressure on these holidays to have sex. The idea is you go to sleep with as many people as possible. This is kind of a crazy concept to me now as an adult, whereas as a teenager, it was sort of an unsaid rule that we all followed. I also wanted to make a cinematic film and talking about sexual assault in the UK, or a domestic space, is harder to make fully immersive. 

The camaraderie among the friends is at the heart of the film. Can you talk about creating the female friendship dynamics?
On reflection, there were a lot of friends that were almost lying and pushing us in situations, pretending that they were more experienced than they had been, and I think that is so destructive. I wanted to make a film that didn’t lock out the male point of view. We wanted to talk about how the pressure comes from all angles, from female friendship, to men, to even the environment that you are in, so as to not blame anyone, but more blame the way we are taught how to have sex.

Molly Manning Walker headshot
Molly Manning Walker. (Photo: Courtesy of Billy Boyd Cape)

What decisions did you make in depicting the male characters?
It was about asking people to engage with the conversation. Badger was always meant to be that male character that men see themselves in. He is kind of bumbly, and joyous, and you kind of want them to end up together. Paddy was very complicated. It was hard to navigate that role through the shoot and throughout the edit and not make him too aggressive — to understand where his motives come from or where his lack of education and understanding of other humans come from. It was a really intricate balance. 

I was a little disappointed that Em and Paige’s relationship was not more prominent. Can you talk about including the queer storyline, especially in this setting?
When we did research for the film, originally, the Em and Paige storyline was a straight couple. What we realized was that although the conversation on consent hadn’t moved on that much, the conversation around being queer had — especially in Gen Z, where there is an openness to it that I did feel when I was growing up, so I wanted to include the queer character to represent a better relationship, and one that goes a little bit smoother. But they are still awkward teenagers, and I guess it’s not the best relationship on screen, but I had to navigate whose story to focus on, so I pared back the other stories, so viewers fully connect with Tara and track her emotions throughout the film, otherwise it gets quite messy. So maybe there is a sequel based on Em. [Laughs] 

You deliberately avoided depicting nudity and the scenes of a sexual (and sexually violent) nature are discretely filmed. Can you discuss this decision?
There was this constant hope for sex, and no one knew what they were in for at that age. There is definitely no discussion around female pleasure. The idea was to make it kind of uncomfortable but also unseen.

You have made a powerful cautionary tale. Do you think your film will change minds?
What has been powerful in the response is when men especially react and say, “Oh, I’ve been in situations that make other people feel very uncomfortable, and I haven’t read the space right.” 

I think that’s quite a radical response to the film. That is what we could only have hoped for. It is not a cautionary tale on clubbing and partying because I think some of the best times in my life have been in those parties. Hopefully, we can create a space where people can party without having to worry about sexual assault.