Saturday 4 November 2023

Bodies rest and motion: "How to Have Sex"

Molly Manning Walker's directorial debut
How to Have Sex is a Brit film that will play in two different ways to two different audiences - distinguishing it from all those homegrown productions that play not at all to no particular audience whatsoever. For viewers of an age comparable to its teenage and young adult leads, this will likely present as a cautionary tale of sun, sea, sex and consent. For those of us twice that age (or more), Walker's film appears as a very human comedy of errors, premised on the kind of behaviour you will be relieved is a thing of your own past, if ever it was a thing at all. Brace yourself: for fullest appreciation, you will need to endure whole scenes of shrieking and lairiness, plus - cover eyes and ears - vomiting off a balcony, at least one truly regrettable tattoo and absolutely fucking dogshit house music. As you may have already guessed from those ingredients, Manning Walker has devoted herself to dramatising a very specific rite-of-passage: the summer package holiday. In a boystown movie like 2011's The Inbetweeners Movie, such awaydays were a source of endless embarrassment, humiliation and sniggering. Turning up in Malia on the isle of Crete, Manning Walker sets about fashioning something greatly more nuanced: a study of teenage group dynamics born of if not close personal experience then certainly careful observation. There's more than a little raucousness onsite as young Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) sets out to lose her virginity, but Manning Walker is no Apatow bro. Instead, rather like Liam Williams' unusually probing BBC3 sitcom Ladhood (from which How to Have Sex inherits half its male cast), she weighs lager-infused lolz against small, quiet, often painful and difficult truths. This filmmaker was previously the cinematographer on the summer's indie charmer Scrapper: she's kept the colour (bronzed flesh and neon poolwear abounds) but added welcome salt to that film's abundant sugar. Even the non-sexual activity she captures here is a confusing fumble, complicated by too much alcohol and hormones, and not enough life experience or sleep. It gets rough in spots - concerning, maybe even disturbing - but Manning Walker retains an eye for genuine moments of connection and optimism. "Romeo, Romeo, where is ya?," hollers Tara's pal Skye (Lara Peake) to a topless swain on an adjacent balcony, through a mouthful of sausage roll. Ah, young love.

What makes this such a standout debut is precisely this double-jointed quality: you come away convinced Manning Walker could do anything, making her especially well suited to portraying the jumble of emotions that follow from late adolescence. She gets a laugh just from the tangled positions her boozy pleasureseekers wake up in, yet she also captures the uncanny chill of an abandoned bar district in the early morning light, streets littered with empties like corpses, as if she were Antonioni shooting an episode of Kavos Weekender. (You wonder if the production found this drag in this state, or whether the carnage represents heroic set dressing.) In the middle of all the resort noise, Manning Walker shoots a lovely scene that describes two kids on another of those balconies, one handrolling a cigarette, the other nodding off on his shoulder. But she's alert to the many and varied ways young men and women rub up against one another: she delivers on the title's vaguely salacious promise with two subtly calibrated couplings, guaranteed to provoke (hopefully constructive) post-screening discussion. Here, this camera aligns closer than ever with Tara, a heroine who arrives keen to get on one, but who also - overwhelmed by her surrounds - increasingly starts to zone out. Does she want to be here? If she wants a boy, does she want him to look at her, talk to her and touch her like that? Her virginity vanishes in a flash, but she also gains other markers of maturity: a dawning autonomy, a growing reluctance to follow the party herd. The narrative retains a built-in blurriness, tracking staggering characters from hotel to pool to bar to club and back to the hotel again - we're going round and around as kids do on package holidays. Yet with each new dawn comes renewed wisdom. That's largely down to Manning Walker's gentle, Hansen Løve-like work with her young cast, nudging them forwards a situation at a time, and encouraging them to make only the fools of themselves each situation necessitates. She fosters a remarkable performance from McKenna-Bruce, who could pass for Florence Pugh's hoarser-voiced younger sister: before our eyes, she graduates from girl to young woman, chip-chomping liability to total sweetheart, complex emotions passing over her face like clouds across an Aegean moon. They're all in safe hands, though, as are we - and, for at least these ninety minutes, so too is the future of the British film industry.

How to Have Sex is now playing in selected cinemas.

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