Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, the film on everyone’s lips is Molly Manning Walkers’ How to Have Sex. Behind the thumping electronic music and screaming neon lights, Walker’s film is a poignant commentary on consent and the coercive influence of peers.
This rite-of-passage film follows the protagonist Tara through the whirlwind of post-exam vacays,  armed only with neon drinks and barely-there mesh outfits: ‘A Claire’s accessories version of womanhood’. The narrative plays out in Mia McKenna-Bruce’s mercilessly eloquent facial expressions. We watch as her youthful abundance of energy transforms into a solemn understanding of the reality of sex. Lara Peake, interviewed by METAL this week, also adds to the plot with her nuanced portrayal of Skye.
How to Have Sex is a crucial addition to modern film. “There is a massive disconnect”, states Walker, “between women who feel they have been sexually assaulted and men who don’t think that they have assaulted”. It is not spoken about enough. “Even the teachers are ashamed to talk about it” As such,  the team have paired with a UK charity to take the film into schools as material for sexual education.
Hi Molly, thank you for speaking with us and congratulations on the release of the film!
Hello! Thank you!
The accuracy in the film was highly impressive, from sharing clothes to gobbling chips on the walk back from the club, I felt you provided a glimpse into the exhilarating but fragile world of teenage girls. Did you base the characters off your own experience? If not, from where did you gather inspiration and insight?
So we did loads of research. I lived in Malia for two weeks at the height of the season to document what everyone was up to witness what was going on. Another thing I used which was amazing was vlogs. A few really in-detail Youtube vlogs about people’s holidays that were really chaotic but beautiful in the way that they were made. Actually in one of the vlogs one of their friends goes missing and they document the whole process of trying to find their friend. TikTok was a big part of our research process as well. Holidays are so well documented at the moment so we could draw on that information from costume to makeup to all sorts.
What differences do you think exist around sexual pressures in adolescence between boys and girls?
I think boys are told that they have to be strong and powerful, that they have to know exactly what they’re doing. And even if they don’t, to just carry on and pretend that you know what you’re doing. I was with some teenagers yesterday doing some research and they kept talking about how disgusting it is if women have slept with a certain number of men, but for them they felt they had to sleep with as many women as possible. The contradiction between that I think really sums up the difference in the pressure. There’s not enough discussion around female pleasure, and therefore I think it’s much more isolating for girls to understand what they should want and need.
I think a lot of meaning lies in the unsaid as in many of the most poignant scenes, dialogue is replaced with McKenna-Bruce’s resonant facial expressions. Can you tell us a bit about this decision? What role do you think non-verbal communication plays in audience interpretation?
I think a lot about this topic is that we can’t speak about it and there’s a lot of shame about not speaking about it. Really if we had the capabilities to talk about it I think a lot of the issues would be easier for us. I knew going in that it was all in the unsaid and the unspoken. McKenna-Bruce has this amazing ability to do two things at the same time. How she is pretending to act and what she is feeling inside. I rooted it all in her face at all times.
Do you think this leaves room for the audience to add their own experiences, thought processes, and understanding to that empty space?
Yeah, I love stuff with as little dialogue as possible because I think our audiences are smarter than you think. They can pick up on small movements rather than having to say stuff all the time.
You are a director of photography as well as a visual artist. Tell us about how you came up with the style of the film?
For me it was about rooting it all in Tara’s experience. So being really close to her face and what she was looking at. Things like American Honey were really good references for us, where the film is visually rooted in one person within a chaotic group. It was hard to capture the whole energy of the group without having to shoot everyone in singles, and cutting between it. So we rooted it in her eyes and her face and whatever she was looking at.
The visual style changes when she goes missing because I didn’t want to pick up a new character. So when she goes missing it becomes static, we are looking for her, zooming past everyone.
Why do you think for the last few years that consent and female pleasure have been at the centre of cinematic narratives?
It’s become very apparent that we have a long way to go, and that so many women feel seen by these topics and need to have these conversations. There is a massive disconnect between women who feel they have been sexually assaulted and men who don’t think that they have assaulted people. There needs to be some sort of reckoning.
I’m worried about the next generation of kids. Having spent a lot of time with them now, there seems to be a push in the wrong direction. We went forward and now we are going quite far backwards. There is a strong obsession with what we look like, which comes from being conscious of how we look with our phones. You can always check on how you look. We didn’t have that as teenagers. So I think that increases the pressure.
I’m curious about the character of Skye. While on the surface she is malicious, judgemental, and all-in-all a questionable choice of friend, it is difficult not to feel sorry for her. She is also struggling to fit into an image of womanhood. Tell us about the process of constructing her character.
I think there was always one girl who we felt kind of ruled the pack and that we were pandering to a little bit. Anything that she said ruled because it felt like she knew what was going on. And I think she was deeply insecure and actually very inexperienced but it came out in this powerful way. On reflection I think she was probably very upset and needed a lot of love.
Let’s talk about alcohol, which has more screen-time than some of the characters. Should we be concerned about such a colossal consumption of alcohol? How does it tie into sex?
I think that there’s a connection between the lack of conversation around sex and the shame around sex, and the need to drink in order to make it okay. I think that is the problem. If you drink and party responsibly, do your thing. But if we are drinking to get through something else, or to help us in social situations, that becomes a problem.
What role do you think porn plays in young people’s understanding of sex?
I think because there’s a lack of conversation around sex, young people look to porn for answers. That’s the only place where you can gain information from it. I was with some teenagers talking about this the other day and they were saying that it's okay that Andrew Tate runs sex rings and web-cams because the girls want to be seen in that way. We’re so fucked. This generation is so fucked up. (laughs).
My idea was that we make a really good film about female pleasure and we start putting it on porn sites so that it influences people looking for more information.
Building on from that. I have spoken to people about the film, both men and women, and there has been an appreciative reaction from both sides. I do think we are moving in a direction where there is more of a conversation around sex and what good and bad sex looks like. So, for our sake, would you say there’s a glimmer of hope?
I hope so. No, I think there is. I’m basically reacting to how yesterday I went into a school and had a really intense research process around Andrew Tate’s influence on young boys. I think it’s a very specific group of young boys and hopefully there’s a bigger reaction that is moving us forward in a better way.
Sound is very important in this movie, and not just in the form of techno music. How did you work with the sound?
It was really difficult to record the sound and hide mics, because they’re not wearing many clothes.
The whole film is basically designed in two halves. The first is meant to be very ethereal and magical, and the second half gets more aggressive. The crickets get faster in the background, the bass gets deeper, the BPM gets faster, everything is intensified. In the first half there are no songs that overlap, they are all different, whereas in the second you can hear two different songs coming from, for example, two different hotel rooms. It is meant to get much more disorientating.
I found it interesting how there is no shock-factor climax in the film, after an increasing sense of anticipation the act happens and the narrative moves on. What was the thought process behind this understated approach? Do you think it reflects the difficulty of coming to terms with an act that is at once trivial and monumentous?
In films, as someone that has been sexually assaulted, I felt that the character became irredeemable. Like their whole life had been ruined. And so, for me, it was important to highlight that life keeps going. That so many women are holding this, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are completely crippled by it. It could also be the girl that runs into the room and is loud. Not just victims as we see them on screen.
And finally, what do you hope viewers will remember most after watching the film?
I guess to be nicer to each other. We can support each other. And not assault each other. Be it your friends, sexual partners, or strangers. There’s something so nice about meeting someone in a club and them checking up on you. I think we should all be a bit more like that.