Review by Sean Boelman
Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut How to Have Sex debuted in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes, where it walked home with the top prize in the category. Although the film definitely works best on an aesthetic level, it's hard to discount the subtle character work that Walker offers in her debut, resulting in an unexpectedly emotional experience.
The movie follows a group of three teenage girls who go on a summer vacation, with the goal of partying and hooking up with attractive boys. Although this core premise is one that has been done by dozens of films before — if not more — How to Have Sex approaches it in such an unfussy, incredibly naturalistic way that it still feels refreshing.
This is the type of movie that deals more in vibes than narratives. Although there is a story, which becomes particularly prominent in the third act, it’s better to let the movie wash over you as an experience, rather than try to cling to the narrative threads it contains. Then, the more emotional final act will be able to resonate even more.
Like so many coming-of-age movies, How to Have Sex deals with the concept of what it means to grow up. However, while many films in the genre explore how people are forced to grow up, Manning Walker’s debut stands out in that its protagonist is pushing herself to grow up prematurely, allowing the movie to ask refreshing questions that are uncommon to the genre.
A big part of what makes the film work so well is the verisimilitude with which they approach the characters. Around every corner, they are making stupid decisions — as teenagers often do — but it will be endearing to viewers as they remember the times when they made those decisions in their own youth.
Mia McKenna-Bruce is fantastic in her leading role, bringing to the character a perfect dichotomy of both sadness and hope. Her chemistry with the other two actresses who play her friends — Lara Peake and Enva Lewis — is also fantastic. In the supporting cast, Shaun Thomas shines as the love interest, with a certainly charming presence but also a subtly mysterious undercurrent running through his performance.
The movie absolutely thrives in its execution, with fantastic cinematography and a great soundtrack that fully immerses you in this rave culture. It should come as no surprise that Manning Walker’s background is as a cinematographer, as her eye for aesthetics in her debut is absolutely astounding.
How to Have Sex offers some of the best vibes you’ll see this year until a third act that brings everything the film is exploring together in an absolutely soul-crushing way. Molly Manning Walker’s debut is one of the finest of the year, and cements her as a voice to watch out for in the future.
How to Have Sex screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.