'How to Have Sex' is Subtle and Scary
Writer/director Molly Manning Walker makes an auspicious debut.
It’s a cliché to declare something “THE FIRST GREAT MOVIE OF [CURRENT YEAR]!”, and technically, How to Have Sex didn’t even come out in the current year - it debuted at Cannes last May, was released in its native U.K. this past November, and has been nominated for multiple BAFTA awards, including Outstanding British Film and Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. Us poor Yanks are only just getting it now, though, so it’s new to us. And it is, in fact, THE FIRST GREAT MOVIE OF 2024.
The premise and themes of How to Have Sex, the debut feature from writer/director Molly Manning Walker, are not dissimilar from last year’s The Royal Hotel: young women on holiday find themselves menaced by men in ways that are somehow socially acceptable. The difference is, the young women in The Royal Hotel are in their twenties and working at a bar in the middle of nowhere, which doesn’t exactly sound safe, whereas the young women in How to Have Sex are sixteen, and attending whatever the U.K.’s equivalent of Spring Break in Cabo is, which is a fairly standard adventure for scores of teenagers every year.
The young women in question - Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) - find themselves in a hotel room next door to two boys, Badger (Shaun Thomas) and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), and another girl, Paige (Laura Ambler), who, like Em, is queer. There’s clear chemistry between Tara, who is the only one of her friends who’s still a virgin, and Badger… but Skye also likes Badger, and thus begins gently and not-so-gently pushing Tara towards Paddy.
I won’t tell you where the narrative goes from there, but suffice to say, things… gets… dark. How to Have Sex and The Royal Hotel are also similar in that they’re not technically horror movies, except that they kinda are. And they’re more upsetting than any ghost or ghoul could ever be, because they feel like such accurate depictions of the ways our culture enables sexual assault. I once again quote the activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham, just because her pithy metaphor is so very accurate: “The patriarchy is a smog we all breathe.” Part of the nightmare of being a young woman who is a victim of this kind of trauma is the feeling that no one - not the authorities, not other women, not your closest friends - will help you. You are truly alone.
How to Have Sex feels especially real and, thus, especially unsettling. Walker has also worked as a cinematographer, and her immense visual acumen does wonders in that regard. The camera is mostly handheld, giving the movie a cinéma vérité vibe, until it suddenly isn’t: shots of a deserted street littered with the detritus of inebriated adolescents or a suggestively-shaped pool are static save for slow zooms full of foreboding - a feeling only bolstered by the fact that they’re used so sparingly (I spoke recently about how Fallen Leaves is made up of nothing but static shots, and how some contrast could help the film be both engaging both visually and emotionally - How to Have Sex is a shining example of the cinematic powers of variation and divergence). Even less-noticeable differences, like cutting from a series of close-ups to a shot of two characters barely-glimpsed through a doorway, go a long way towards making How to Have Sex effective.
Walker’s script only further adds to the sense of realism - a great lesson in allowing subtext to remain subtext and not feeling obligated to bonk the audience over the head with the message. Skye’s jealousy of Tara, for example, could easily be over-the-top - she’s ostensibly the Iago to Tara’s Othello - but it’s never made explicit: it’s expressed in the way she discreetly watches Tara and Badger flirt, the way she passive-aggressively lords superior test scores over Tara, and the way she’s constantly lobbing insults at Tara and then covering them up by insisting that she’s “just joking.” Similarly, only Tara gets moments alone, away from the group, giving the audience quick peeks of all the ways in which her public facade deviates from her actual feelings.
The entire cast is great - I don’t know if the dialogue was improvised or what, but, I reiterate, this is one of those very evocative films that feels a lot like a documentary even though it isn’t. McKenna-Bruce, especially, seems destined for big things; the way she’s able to shift emotions on a dime is incredible. She’ll be smiling one moment and look completely haunted the next and she 100% sells it every time. And Thomas, who was also excellent a decade ago in The Selfish Giant, has since grown into an even better actor; his nuanced performance allows Walker to really play with your expectations of who his character is in way that’s dramatically quite effective.
Whether How to Have Sex is the last great movie of 2023 or the first great movie of 2024, it is a great movie, and an incredible showcase for young talent both behind and in front of the camera. I can’t wait to see what everyone involved does next.