How to Make a Raw and Authentic Coming-of-Age Film About Consent: Molly Manning Walker Chats 'How to Have Sex'

The 'Scrapper' cinematographer partly draws upon her own experiences as a British teen partying abroad in this Greek getaway-set drama — and it's essential viewing.
Sarah Ward
Published on March 05, 2024

"It's a hard film to Google," says Molly Manning Walker of How to Have Sex, simply due to her debut feature's moniker. "Everyone's always really loved the title, and it's been the title since the beginning. I guess it gets complex when it goes onto the internet and you get bots saying 'maybe I'll learn something' or 'they think they could teach me how to have sex'," the British writer/director continues. "The only thing I think someone once said was 'why don't we call it How Not to Have Sex?'. And I was like 'I think that's too obvious'.

As it spends time with three 16-year-old British girls on a boozy Greek getaway to Malia, Crete — a Schoolies-esque rite-of-passage vacation where getting sloshed, soaking up the sun and slipping between the sheets are the only aims — How to Have Sex is as candid as its name. But Walker is never interested in being bluntly overt or neat; rather, everything about the movie is honest, raw and authentic. Premiering at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and collecting the Un Certain Regard Award in the process, her picture resonates because it's so lived in, so ripped from reality and so familiar to everyone who has ever been a teenager. It isn't a slice-of-life documentary, but finding someone who doesn't recognise their own youth in its frames will be rare.

Walker doesn't just understand that sensation, which she's seen firsthand among audiences after screenings; she's in the same camp. Amid its fluorescent colours, strobing lights and sweaty intimacy, How to Have Sex sports a doco feel because its guiding force's own teen experiences partly inform this tale of Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, Vampire Academy) and her best friends Em (debutant Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake, Halo) heading abroad to let loose, drink away their days and hook up. That includes witnessing fellatio on a stage in front of a heaving crowd, a scene in the feature — and in actuality — that couldn't say more about how cavalier that teen attitudes on sex can be, especially when aided by free-flowing alcohol. It also helps show the mindsets, plus the lack of thinking, that contribute to not taking an active approach to consent. 

How to Have Sex sees Tara lose her virginity in an inebriated haze of coercion and peer pressure. It also sees how and why a situation like this is so heartbreakingly common and recognisable, and unravels the aftermath. Walker's aim isn't to direct judgement at any character within the film, but to start conversations. Workshops also helped her gauge IRL takes on consent among today's teens. In England and Wales, How to Have Sex will now be shown to the age group it depicts as part of lawyer-led sessions run by the Schools Consent Project.

With her first stint in the director's chair — she's also a cinematographer, lensing Scrapper, which debuted at Sundance 2023 — Walker has made an unforgettable feature. The BAFTA-nominee has also crafted a piece of essential viewing. And, as she always hoped, it is sparking discussions. "I think even without these holidays as such, these experiences happen when you're out and about in your local town as well. So I think as much as it was a comment on these holidays, it's a bigger conversation than that for sure," Walker says. Still, wanting that to be the outcome wasn't the same as knowing that's how people would respond. "It's been beautiful to see how people react to the film. We never expected it. When we were in the edit, you finesse over all these small things and spend so long stressing about how people might see it. So yeah, it's been pretty magical."

Walker hopped from Cannes to the New Zealand International Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival with How to Have Sex last year, describing the period as "pretty hectic, just really full on". "We finished the film on like the Friday and we went to Cannes on the Tuesday, so I hadn't really had time to breathe or think about it," she also tells Concrete Playground. Her must-see feature receives a general release in cinemas Down Under from Thursday, March 7, 2024 — and Walker kept chatting with us about getting people talking, the movie's inspirations, those workshops, casting British Independent Film Awards' Best Lead Performance- and BAFTA Rising Star-winner McKenna-Bruce, ensuring that Tara wasn't just a victim and more.


Molly Manning Walker behind the scenes on Scrapper.

On What Inspired How to Have Sex, Including Walker's Own Experiences

"I was very different as a teenager. I was like, when I was 16, long fake hair, fake eyelashes, covered in fake tan — and I went on loads of these holidays.

I went on a holiday with some friends, and we were recalling some of the scenes from these holidays that we remembered, and I started to think it had a big impact on our perception of sex and how we navigate sexual experiences. That's where the idea sort of started.

I guess it's all a combination of experiences and just imagination as well. The blowjob on stage is something I witnessed when we were on holiday."


On the Research and Workshops That Helped to Shape the Movie

"We lived in Malia for two weeks on the scout. We lived there in high season in the middle of a party town, so we were witnessing a lot of chaos all the time.

Some of that, we were going up to people and saying 'we're making a film, can we take pictures of your outfits?'. And they were up for it. So it was all direct reference from reality or from memory.

We went all around the UK doing some workshops, and it was just mad to see their perception on consent. Not many of them were wised up to consent. 

We would show them the assault scene and they would be like 'yeah, but, you know, they slept together the night before, so it's fine'. Or stuff like that. So it was really shocking, to be honest."


On Giving How to Have Sex That Ripped-From-Reality Specificity

"Every choice was to make it as authentic as possible, to ground it in reality. I would never have wanted it to feel like it was a film. 

So all across the production design, costumes, we chose a documentary cinematographer — everything was to ground it in reality.

I wanted to really live and breathe it with them. The first half of the film is meant to be this really joyous party experience — and the second half, you start to see the underbelly of the party town. You see the glitter and then you see the darkness of it. 

It was split in two halves, both in every design, in production design, in lighting, in everything."


On Finding Mia McKenna-Bruce to Play Tara, and the Impact of Her Performance on the Film

"It was actually pretty early in the casting process. We got a tape of of Mia, and she's just so funny and her tape was so funny, but there was so much going on behind her eyes.

I was pretty sure straight away that she was the one, which we were shocked at because we thought Tara would be the harder one to cast, considering how much she has to go through. But I was just really confident. I don't know what it is — when you see someone, you just kind of know.

She's such a legend, Mia. She's a superstar, and she comes to set every day with energy. And often her first take, you'd be like 'so good', so you know where to go with that.

But what it did mean was that we could experiment loads because she would always nail it on the first take, so we could bring some options to it. Sometimes, we would try a take with no words or we'd run lots of different experiments, which was really fun — and we could only do that because Mia was so good at nailing it the first time."


On Ensuring That This Wasn't a Standard Victim Tale — and That Tara Was Resilient

"With Tara, we wanted to not tell a victim story as we classically see it on screen. She's meant to be a bubbly character like all of us. 

We all go through these experiences and we're not just ruined for life as a film often shows it. So it's meant to show the resilience of young women.

It's not that she's not affected by it, because of course she's going to be affected by it, but that she's resilient like people are. They carry on with all of their experiences."


On Approaching the Film's Characters and Friendships Without Judgement

"I guess they all have their own little stories going on, and the main thing for me was that we never looked down on them, and we never judged them — especially the boys.

We want men to recognise themselves in them, in order to open the conversation up. We want it to be fun and for people to want to be on that holiday, but also to question what they're up to. So it was it was complex, for sure.

The main thing for me was not to judge them, even though they're all going through their own stuff. But we've all been in those situations."


On Starting Conversations with How to Have Sex — and the Reactions to the Film

"We didn't really know to what extent people had been affected by this topic. Like, we knew that we wanted to talk about it, but we didn't really know how big the the impact would be. So many young women are coming out of screenings saying 'thank you for making this film, I feel seen'. 

I guess the quantity was unknown, but we were always hoping to to start a conversation for sure.

I think one of the most powerful experiences was, it was like a 65–70-year-old guy pacing after the one of the screenings, and one of the distributors went up to him and said 'are you okay?'. And he said 'I've just realised that I've been that guy. I've been Paddy before.'

That sort of blew my brain open because if we can do that for one person, then the film's done its job."


How to Have Sex opens in Australian and New Zealand cinemas on Thursday, March 7, 2024. Read our review.

How to Have Sex images: Nikolopoulos Nikos.

Published on March 05, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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