Writer-Director Molly Manning Walker attends the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “How to Have Sex” Premiere at Library Center Theatre on January 18, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Annie Lyons
In the thrumming clubs of Malia, Crete, you feel the bass in your bones. The music pulses with fervent urgency, and young holidayers Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) embrace the beat with every celebratory whoop and dance move.
But when Tara makes her way back to the hotel one morning, the songs fade away, replaced by the soft whisper of wind chimes and the buzz of waking insects. The camera stays on her, slowly zooming in. She wipes her eyes, then exhales and shakes her hands anxiously, trying to compose herself. Only the litter scattered on the street accompanies her on the long, lonely walk.
Filmmaker Molly Manning Walker keeps audiences up close with Tara in How to Have Sex, her harrowing feature directorial debut that explores sexual consent. Screening as part of the Spotlight section of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, the film premiered on January 18 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah.
The contrast between the pounding music and the increasingly dissonant quiet proves vital to our understanding of Tara’s journey. “Something that I recognized when we went back to scout [locations] and something that I kind of remember as a teenager being there is that there’s very rarely silence in those spaces,” Manning Walker explains during the film’s post-premiere discussion. “You’re woken up by the bass. It disturbs you. You hear people screaming or you’re woken up by another party, and it’s just relentless. And then when you get in the cab on the way home, it drifts away like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’”
Tara, Em, and Skye arrive at the party resort on a post-exam high with big hopes for a week of partying and hooking up. “Best holiday ever!” they cheer with anticipation. But when Tara, the least sexually experienced of the crew, has a questionably consensual late-night encounter on the beach, she puts on a mask and isolates from the group, struggling with the words to voice her experience. The film carefully shifts from what seems like a coming-of-age sex comedy to something more intimate.
Inspiration came from Manning Walker’s reflection on her own rite-of-passage holiday memories. “It was this thing of looking back on those holidays, that time of my life, and realizing that friends had definitely pushed me into situations or I pushed others,” she says. “We were all so competitive, and we were so unkind to each other. The pressure that we put on each other was so unhealthy. And now, I would never stand for that.”
The premiere also represents a triumphant return for the filmmaker, who was the cinematographer of the 2023 Festival’s Grand Jury Prize–winning Scrapper and took the microphone only hours after it was announced that How to Have Sex received three BAFTA nominations, including one for Outstanding British Film. While attending the 2023 Festival with Scrapper — her first festival ever — Manning Walker was in the middle of the edit of How to Have Sex and welcomed the chance to get inspired by watching other films. The trickiest part of the edit turned out to be the beach scene with Paddy (Samuel Bottomley). “It became very obvious that some people didn’t have a problem with [his actions] and that found it normal,” she notes. “Making that feel impactful, and that there was something wrong with it, was quite hard.”
Considering the film’s exploration of sexual consent, the writer-director remarks that in her view, the conversation around consent sadly hasn’t moved on and still needs lots of work. “Taking the [film] around the world, it’s been crazy how many women have reached out and feel seen by the film,” she says. “What we didn’t expect was men to sort of recognize their own behavior and feel also sorry for that. And so I think the more we talk about it, the better we’ll get, but I think the conversation has got a long way to go.”
Crucially, How to Have Sex explores Manning Walker’s interest in “the lack of language we have for each other when someone’s going through something.” It’s a notion exemplified by even Tara’s best mates. “Do you think she’s all right?” a new friend reckons as the group wonders about Tara’s whereabouts. “Mate, she’s having the time of her life,” Skye replies with confidence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.