Everyone remembers the first solo holiday they took with their mates. The one without parents breathing down their neck about coming home at a certain time or forcing them to take part in the torture known as organised fun. Without the simmering tension of a family argument threatening to capsize the mood at any given moment.
For most teenage Brits, these groundbreaking holidays tend to take place on a Greek island or town – Zante, Malia, Ayia Napa, Magaluf, Kavos – as a partying-fuelled bookend to GCSEs or A‑levels. Coastal paradises where anything goes and the general rules of civilised society are discarded.
There, the booze flows faster. Fishbowl cocktails come bigger than your head (and cost the price of a pint back home). Friendships are made, strengthened and broken in a haze of foam dispensed from cannons on sticky dancefloors, cheesy Eurotrance bangers and 6am kebab wraps. Inhibitions, especially sexual ones, are looser.
For a few precious days, reality is suspended as the party rolls non-stop.
Because ultimately, this rite-of-passage, this generational benchmark, offers up a different kind of simmering tension. This is what forms the core of writer-director Molly Manning Walker’s head-spinning, deeply poignant debut feature, How to Have Sex. Shot on location in Malia last year and starring FACE friend Mia McKenna-Bruce in the lead role, in May it scooped the prestigious Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes. This week, the film premiered at the London Film Festival to rapturous acclaim.
And what better climax to the London Film Festival than a film from a female British director which so deftly explores coming-of-age, experimentation, release and trauma, without letting the latter define any of her characters?
Based in part on the personal experiences of 30-year-old Walker (who graduated from the National Film and Television school in 2019), How to Have Sex is the culmination of years spent mainly as a Director of Photography on projects such as Nicôle Lecky’s BAFTA-winning BBC drama Mood (2022), Charlotte Regan’s brilliant debut Scrapper (2023) and music videos for the likes of A$AP Rocky and Loyle Carner.
Written largely over lockdown, How to Have Sex’s universe orbits around 16-year-old Tara (McKenna-Bruce) and her two best friends, Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis). All are on the cusp of adulthood following the completion of their GCSEs. All are dead excited to be embarking on a celebratory trip to Malia.
Its opening sequence sees the trio, giddy with excitement, bulldoze into their shared room in a cheap resort off the strip. Think: balcony view over a dick-shaped pool. They’ve got two things in mind: getting fucked up and, as the film’s title suggests, getting laid. Tara, How to Have Sex’s beating heart, is set on losing her virginity, which makes the holiday’s stakes for her that much higher. But after meeting a pair of likely northern lads, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Badger (Shaun Thomas), the London girls’ all-for-one mission begins to unravel.
Under the beating Malian sun, consent and the very essence of sex itself – and what that should look like – melt away, as Tara is swept into a maelstrom of isolation and deafening self-doubt following an encounter that doesn’t go to plan.
Reflecting on her own experience of a party holiday, Walker admits that she “hadn’t realised how much sexual influence [it] had on my life” – that is, until she went to a wedding and recalled a particularly salacious memory to a group of friends. “I was talking about a blowjob that happened on stage at a club, half-convinced I must have imagined it, but everyone remembered it the same way.”
And so the How to Have Sex seed was sown, as Walker conjured up a world largely “built around sexual pressure, which is such a strange thing”. Said blowjob scene made it into the film, by the way.
“As soon as I read the script, I could immediately tell how authentic the writing and the story was,” McKenna-Bruce, a former child actor who later starred in BBC teen drama Get Even (2020) and Netflix’s period piece Persuasion (2022), tells me.
“On the surface, Tara’s got the gift of the gab,” continues the 27-year-old Londoner (a brand-new mum who, in the film, convincingly plays a girl 10 years her junior). “She can chat her way out of anything, she’s the life and soul of the party, she’s bubbly. And because she provides so much energy to any group that she’s in, she feels a sense of responsibility. Which means that when Tara starts to not feel her best, not like herself, she tries to cover that up.”
Not to mention that often, as a teenage girl, the language surrounding sexual assault can feel daunting and completely beyond you. How do you put words to something you haven’t experienced before, especially when you’re far away from home? When the ways in which we talk about sex are already so fraught, and when telling your mates makes it unequivocally, terrifyingly real?
“I think that goes for a lot of teens,” McKenna-Bruce acknowledges. “You want to be this beacon of fun, you don’t want to put anything on anyone else. You don’t know how to articulate a lot of feelings, which is definitely something I went through.”
Complicating matters is the fact that, in spite of the aforementioned sisterhood, Tara isn’t always surrounded by the best people. Skye, for instance, emerges as the group’s ringleader. She’s all big hoops, bodycon dresses and catty bravado, a demeanour which starts off affectionately enough – at least towards Tara – before descending into outright meanness.
“What you see with Skye is probably only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s not a very nice one,” says Peake, who’d previously worked with Walker on Mood. “She’s very bothered by what people think of her. She wants to be liked, to be found sexy and cool and attractive, but the way this manifests isn’t necessarily right. Skye starts to feel the group’s dynamic slip through her fingers. She feels threatened by that, but also vulnerable. It’s almost like the dance they’ve all been doing for however many years is beginning to change.”
What Peake’s referring to here is only a small slice of what How to Have Sex lays bare so honestly: the sometimes brutal reality of young female friendship, and how quickly it can fracture in the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.
“At that age, the friendships you have feel like the be-all-and-end-all,” McKenna-Bruce says. “I think something we see in the film is that sometimes they aren’t the healthiest for you anymore, and that’s OK. We meet Tara at a point where she’s kind of figuring that out, especially with Skye.”
Three’s a crowd, especially on the pull, but in this case, Em, played by Enva Lewis in her first feature role, brings a much-needed sweetness and balance to Tara and Skye’s opposing flavours of chaos. She’s the mum of the group, a chronic overachiever who’s always got her wits about her.
“Em is very organised and headstrong,” Lewis tells me. But that doesn’t stop her from knocking back a shot or 10 on a night out. “She’s a little chaotic, too, but a loyal and brilliant friend.” Laura Ambler, a painter and decorator scouted by Walker and her casting director Isabella Odoffin via Instagram, plays Paige, Em’s up-for-anything love interest who’s along for the ride with Bottomley’s Paddy and Thomas’ Badger.
“When I got the message, I thought it was my ex-girlfriend setting me up,” Ambler says. “But after I got the role, Molly reassured me every day that I was smashing it; she saw something in me that I’d never seen before. I’m grateful for that.”
The boys, meanwhile, come with their own set of complexities. They’ve been friends for a long time, are of legal drinking age, full to the brim with braggadocio and desperate to sleep around. Paddy’s personality is “based on ego and insecurity,” in the words of Bottomley, who’s been acting since he was nine-years-old and most recently appeared in Channel 4’s Somewhere Boy. Badger is gentler, sadder, a little goofier than his dodgy tattoos and scruffy bleached hair let on. Both of them are intertwined much in the same way the girls are: by circumstance and proximity rather than genuine friendship.
“I was ready to take this project very seriously,” says Thomas (currently on ITV in Yorkshire Ripper drama The Long Shadow). “I could see that it would need a lot of time and effort, and I was prepared to do that. What stood out to me about the script was how driven the story was by its characters.”
In the film, McKenna-Bruce, Peake, Lewis, Bottomley, Thomas and Ambler’s chemistry is palpable. Over a couple of months of rehearsals, they got to know each other with Walker’s guidance – the director even brought in hand-held cameras and had the girls interview each other in character. “It was about seeing how deeply we knew our characters while bouncing off each other as a group,” McKenna-Bruce says. Actually living on the Malia strip for a few weeks helped, too. “It really felt like we were 16, 17 again.”
Walker also went full throttle when it came to the auditioning process.
“When I first read the script, it ruined my day!” Lewis admits with a laugh, speaking to its dark undertones, “but it also triggered an excitement in me.” To try to win the part, she submitted a self-tape audition, a makeshift TikTok and a video of herself telling her wildest party story. Then, past that first round, “auditioning in person, Molly threw the maddest scenarios out,” Lewis continues. “I think my naivety meant I didn’t have a barrier up and I messed around a little bit. I think I took my trousers off at one point. Then Molly was like: ‘Right, you’re all drunk and you’re pissing on someone who’s just been stung by a jellyfish! Go!’”
This unbridled, freewheeling havoc is reflected in How to Have Sex’s first act: “ooh, ah, Malia!” chants, drunken escapades and thumping club tracks are packed in among a sea of strobe lights and trips to the toilet for a quick tactical chunder. The girls are pushing themselves (and their livers) to the absolute limit. Silence is an alien concept, in every sense, and the film’s music was integral to its all-senses experience.
“I know all too well the feeling of loud, disorientating places and people surrounding you dancing like zombies,” Jakwob, the DJ and composer who worked on the film’s score, says wryly. “The isolation and exhaustion are very apparent in these big clubland locations. We spoke about the ringing in your ears, and the way you can almost feel the effects of the night in your bloodstream the morning after – the anxiety-inducing, distant hum of bass, hangovers and comedowns.”
To create the film’s uncannily, almost nauseously realistic clubbing scenes, Walker got her cast (literally) twisted: she had McKenna-Bruce, Peake and Lewis “spin, spin, spin, so we genuinely felt the sensation of losing our balance and being off-centre,” Peake says. To further amplify the authentic feeling of packed clubs heaving with the scent of sizzled skin, suntan lotion and Sex On the Beach by the bucketload, over 2000 extras were hired to dance alongside the actors. At the same time, though, Peake adds, “so much of the film was improvised and Molly factored in a lot of time to allow for that. Living on the strip, there was a fine line between fiction and reality, which is so exciting as an actor.”
How to Have Sex’s cast – now a tight-knit group with their own WhatsApp group – couldn’t speak more highly of Walker’s approach. “She’s very caring, very understanding and wants to foster an environment on set that is just good vibes,” Peake continues. “Our rehearsals were mostly discussion-based, and Molly has, in the best way, the curiosity and oppenness of a child.”
Case in point: in an early scene, where Tara and Skye meet Badger for the first time, Peake was busy eating a sandwich between takes. The director decided this would look great on-screen. “I was like, by the third take I’m going to have eaten 15 ham and cheese baguettes! I actually think they ran out in the end. But I loved how Molly lets ideas come to her in the moment – it means nothing is rigid or fixed.”
A similar moment came when Badger says to Tara, “I didn’t know you two were ‘exclusive’”. That, Thomas says with a laugh, “came out as ‘all-inclusive’. That got a giggle, which is where I really enjoy acting.”
The sugar-rush high of the film’s first half, though, only makes its devastating crash that much harder to stomach. Here, too, Walker crafted her shoot with her young cast’s narrative journey in mind. “We shot all the party scenes first,” McKenna-Bruce says. “We did about two weeks of pure party, night shoots, getting all that energy out at the beginning. Then we got into the darker stuff.”
This shift into stillness was invaluable to McKenna-Bruce, especially when it came to filming intimate scenes. The cast considered each other close friends by that point, too, which helped to relax the mood. “Having everyone’s support really made me feel safe,” she says. “It made me feel like I could get those scenes wrong and go to different places, and that it didn’t matter if it didn’t quite work.”
Part of what makes How to Have Sex so compelling is Walker’s decision to explore an affront women and girls face daily, but in the context of a group holiday – where “rules” are adhered to, worryingly, even less so than back home. Particularly striking, in some scenes, is how, despite Tara’s proximity to safety and to her friends, that did nothing to stop her being taken advantage of.
To help newcomer Lewis understand the kind of behaviour she wanted to capture, Walker used TikTok videos as visual cues: men bragging about who they’d slept with, filming themselves in bed next to a girl who didn’t know she was being recorded, pointing women out as “targets” while out clubbing. Chilling stuff.
Her film, thinks Molly Manning Walker, will rightly “disturb a lot of men, because a lot of men have been in these situations. We aren’t portraying assault in a violent or excessive way, but as something real.” The film’s objective, though, is not to alienate men. Rather, Walker is trying to include them in a conversation which usually “sucks the air out of a room when you talk about it”, to understand what particular set of circumstances might lead a guy to sexually assault someone.
There were some scenes that Samuel Bottomley was extremely apprehensive to watch back, especially while doing ADR (automated dialogue replacement). “I watched the film with my agent and I covered my face at times, but it was easier to watch back than I thought it would be. I really hope How to Have Sex opens dialogue about the grey area of what’s consent and what’s not,” he says. For her part, Enva Lewis agrees – kind of.
“Everyone says that thing about ‘starting conversations’, and I obviously want it to, but that isn’t really the main goal,” she says. “I want people to come away from watching the film with a new perspective. It doesn’t need to be about taking two sides – we all need to be more open about where the other is coming from. Consent can change from one day to the next. It isn’t fixed.”
How to Have Sex, ultimately, is a powerful, defining indictment of today’s sexual climate. And it’s a subtle, empathetic portrait of teen friendship in the face of the unimaginable, tinged with sadness and hope in equal measure. For a young cast and first-time feature director alike, to create a film that’s both hedonism-filled and generation-capturing is no small feat. God knows we need it.
How To Have Sex is in cinemas from 3rd November