Contributing Writer Anahit Behrooz interviews How To Have Sex writer-director Molly Manning Walker and star Mia McKenna-Bruce.
Virginity may be a construct, but to the girls in Molly Manning Walker’s piercing debut How to Have Sex, that hardly matters. Their lack of sexual experience is a burden, something weighing and shameful, to be shed with as much expediency and furtive, fake experience as possible. Away on a girls trip on the Greek paradise-turned-British nightmare resort of Malia, the three best friends – Mia McKenna-Bruce’s excitable Tara, Lara Peake’s catty Skye and Enva Lewis’ steady Em – revel in sticky wristbands, throaty chants, and the newly acquired detritus of teenage freedom. They’re there to drink, to party, to make memories – but mostly, they’re there to have sex. Their own film’s title barely applies to them: worldly and brash, they seem to know exactly what they’re doing.
Except, not really. A boy yells over a balcony and a girl, frail in her bikini, blushes and barely hides a smile, delighted at the cogs that might finally be set in motion. Resort leaders encourage everyone into ever lewder public acts as a rigid discomfort grows. Tara finds herself caught between two boys – Badger and Paddy – uncertainty and refusal bleeding into every encounter, many of which happen anyway. In this way, Manning Walker carefully traces the limits and failures of our sexual and consent cultures: the lack of education and care we have structured around these formative experiences, making anything both possible and permissible.
Manning Walker and McKenna-Bruce dig into the politics of consent, the problematic teleology of female coming-of-age, and the importance of dwelling in the grey areas.
Girls on Tops: What really struck me about this film is just how universal a story it is – almost every young woman can see part of their life in it – but the way you tell it is so personal. Can you tell me about distilling these big ideas in an intimate way?
Molly Manning Walker: The idea was always to talk about the grey areas that are not so grey. People are so obsessed with yes and no, but there's so many variations of what that means. We wanted to try to create a fun and evocative but also important story through these characters.
Mia McKenna-Bruce: It’s also about getting to explore the subject in real time with Tara. I think what was huge for me is that she herself doesn't understand what she's going through and we're with her as she starts to figure that out – we’re a participant in her emotions.
This idea of exploring it in real time – did you film chronologically?
MMW: [Laughs] Very unchronologically, it was very stressful.
Was it strange to be dipping in and out of Tara’s story, when so much of the narrative is centred around these tipping points?
MMW: We had to check in like, “Oh, yeah, when we shot that you're really trashed in that scene. Either you're really hungover now or you're still trashed.”
MMB: A way of knowing where we were at was the wristbands for club entry. Like, “Wait, have we been to this club? We're now on top number three. So we're really deteriorating at this point.”
MMW: I also had my editor with me, which was really useful. During the shoot I watched the whole film the weekend before we wrapped. In the script, Badger and Tara jump into the pool and everyone’s skinny dipping, and then everyone's asleep and she and Paddy are playing slaps. It's quite a big flip between her being into Badger and then into Paddy. So then we [wrote] a scene where Badger’s too drunk and Tara's telling him jokes and we shot that on the last day. Because I had the editor there, we could free fly a little bit.
There’s something about the wristbands, chants and drinking that feels like such a snapshot of British culture. Were you interested in exploring this aspect of cultural politics?
MMW: What we do really well in British culture is not talk about things. We love to avoid all difficult conversations – so trying to look at that is a delve into British culture. But I also think everyone has their own version of [this holiday]. Spring Break. Schoolies in Australia. In Greece they were like, oh, it's like the free camping thing that we used to do.
This film sits right at the intersection of repression and an overcompensated and performed sexuality. Sex is something these kids really want and they’re surrounded by oversexualised markers, but it’s also something that feels furtive and taboo.
MMW: We're trying to look at the pretence of it, like, “Yeah, we know everything,” but actually have no knowledge at all.
MMB: Even Tara's line, “I don't want to die a virgin”: She's putting on a big facade of wanting to have sex and wanting to have it now. When, actually, realistically, is she ready?
MMW: And Skye, who probably hasn't had sex, is putting all this pressure on everyone else.
It's a really interesting exploration of rites of passage and the ways they can ultimately be quite harmful. We think of female coming-of-age as what makes you an adult, but in this film you’re like, maybe it's fucked up to have these milestones you're meant to arbitrarily pass.
MMW: Even drinking games like Never Have I Ever, they inevitably lead to sex questions, like never have I ever had a threesome. And it's like, they're 16 and they're supposed to answer these questions.
MMB: As if it's a given that this stuff should be a part of their lives already. When at 16, you're really at the beginning of figuring anything out.
They are literally children. It really struck me especially watching the boys – they enact such awful things but they are also so, so young.
MMW: It was a big thing for us that we open the conversation [in a way] that doesn't become “blame it on men.” Especially as a queer masc woman, I understand the pressure you receive to hit on girls and put yourself in these situations; I wasn't really interested in making something that was saying all men are terrible. It was about opening up the conversation and saying that it comes from society, and the only way to change it is if we talk about it, rather than being like, “You guys are to blame now.”
You mentioned earlier grey areas – I'm interested in how this film pushes back against the idea of sexual assault being something that happens with a stranger in a dark alleyway. How did you want to complicate this idea of grey areas?
MMW: For me, the beach scene is an assault and it's an assault because she says no so many times and is so uncomfortable. Consent isn't, “Keep asking until you get a yes.” I think what people find quite scary is that they recognise themselves in that beach scene, so they find it really uncomfortable. They're like, surely that's not an assault because I've been in that situation.
What responses have you had from male audience members?
MMW: We had one guy who was pacing after a screening and someone went up to him to ask if he was OK and he was like, “I've just realised that I've been Paddy.”
Oh my god.
MMW: There’s this defensiveness: people arguing it's not rape because she said yes. Or it's not rape because she didn't get out of the bed. I don't think you would get that reaction unless you've pushed a button.
It made me think of Katherine Angel’s book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again – she talks about how consent culture has its limits, because we’ve positioned women as the gatekeepers of sex and consent as a thing they grant once.
MMB: It's funny how yes is final, but no isn't.
What were some of the conversations around consent that you wanted to challenge with this film?
MMW: The yes or no thing is too binary – it should be about people connecting with each other. And being kind. In general, being kind to each other, friends being kind to each other, men being kind to women, women being kind to men. I just think there's more scope in the world for kindness.
How To Have Sex is in UK and Irish cinemas via MUBI now.