A group of teenage girls embark on a wild post-exam holiday in Molly Manning Walker's evocative feature debut.
For better or for worse, the post-exam group holiday is a rite of passage for countless teenagers in the United Kingdom. Every summer in the wake of GCSEs and A-Levels, hoards of sun-seekers descend on various towns in Spain, Turkey and Greece, in search of cheap alcohol, loud music and peers looking to let loose in a warmer climate. Prior to Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut, such trips were depicted solely through the lens of The Inbetweeners Movie and BBC3 reality show Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents (in which mums and dads would covertly follow their progeny on holiday, spying on them and berating them accordingly for any lewd behaviour).
These holidays are contentious, particularly among locals, who both value the tourist income and lament the loss of local culture, lack of respect these groups often have, and bad behaviour that has become synonymous with the likes of Ibiza, Ayia Napa and Magaluf. Meanwhile, various cases of physical and sexual assault and in the worst instances murder have been reported, leading to safety concerns at both home and abroad. Regardless, Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex captures what has become a common experience, as three 16-year-old pals voyage to Malia for a four-day adventure while they await their GCSE results.
Taz (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis) form a tight-knit trio keen to embrace the island’s infamous reputation as a party paradise, and after sweet-talking their way into a pool view at their hotel, they quickly embark upon The Sesh. The holiday is their last hurrah before brainy Em goes off to college, with Taz and Skye swearing their future is less certain – but in the present, all that matters is the prospect of potential holiday romance: “I can’t die a virgin!” Taz wails.
This seems like an easily resolved problem when the girls catch the eye of the flat next door, consisting of confident, older northerners Badger (Shaun Thomas), Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Paige (Laura Ambler). Em is immediately taken with Paige, excited to embrace her sexuality on the trip, while Taz takes a shine to joker Badger, whose brashness seems to be a cover for a certain shyness. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and when the covertly cruel Skye makes Taz second guess herself, the intricacies of teenage friendships are fully displayed.
It’s a familiar story, but one told with a keen eye for details. Manning Walker’s background in short films and as a cinematographer is evident – eye-popping neons capture the frenetic, seedy energy of the clubs, while one shot of Taz walking down the deserted strip in the early hours of the morning evokes Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar. There’s no harsh judgement for the teenage girls’ petty rebellion, and it’s easy to understand their listlessness, as at 16 one exists in a curious limbo between child and adulthood.
If there is a criticism to be found, it’s that the three central characters do feel as though they’re painted with broad strokes. Taz is the mouthy one with a well-concealed lack of confidence; Skye is the bitchy one; Em is the brainy one. There’s little to set these girls apart from, say, the teens of Booksmart or Spring Breakers, aside from their British slang and wardrobes purchased seemingly in their entirety from Pretty Little Thing. Even so, McKenna-Bruce is a charming lead, easily turning her hand to Taz’s boisterous exterior and internalised moments of self-doubt.
This is an assured leap to feature filmmaking for Manning Walker with a strong visual identity and sense of place – yet also one that sharply depicts the grey areas in gender and sexual politics that one is forced to confront as a teenager, particularly as a teenage girl.
Published 19 May 2023
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