Toronto 2023 Review: HOW TO HAVE SEX, When The Party Brutally Stops

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
Toronto 2023 Review: HOW TO HAVE SEX, When The Party Brutally Stops

While partying hard and uninhibited lust is hardly only the arena of the young, there is something particular about how those about 25 years old and younger indulge themselves that is both weirdly admirable, since their bodies can bounce back so easily, and frightening (given that most lack the maturity to deal with the actions and consequences. But then, it's those actions and consequences that can become muddied, especially when some of those actions are unwanted.

Many of us have likely indulged in, or at least witnessed, the completely unhinged behaviour as portrayed by the youths in Molly Manning Walker's riveting and brutal debut feature How to Have Sex: 'partying' seeming to mean doing little but drinking until you vomit, then drinking again, dancing and screaming at the top of your lungs. As I say - admirable yet frightening to those in the wake of this madness.

The sheer energy of youth, that boundless optimism and devil-may-care attitude seems to come easily to best friends Tara (Mia McKenna Bruce), Em (Enva Lewis), and Skye (Lara Peake): they're in that sweet spot of likely their first holiday away from parents and guardians - a rite of passage for thousands of British youth - cutting loose before their final exam results come in and adulthood comes knocking. Em will likely move on to university, but it's more up in the air for the others. They don't really seem to care about what they might do in the next phase of life, because they are going to party their hot young asses off (as they say themselves), and get laid.

This seems to be a sticking point for Tara, the only one of the three not to have had sex yet. And while her energy seems wild, it's not long before her loving heart peeks through, allowing us to see that vulnerability that comes from a world that teaches women and girls that male attention matters far more than it should. When she meets Badger (Shaun Thomas), it seems real sparks might be flying, perhaps aided by the casual (to put it mildly) atmosphere. He's also on holiday with his mates Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and Paige (Laura Ambler) - what better that to join with a trio with romantic and sexual potential? But drink and parties don't just relax and released inhibitions; they can also bring out the worst in people, even your best friend, and too often it lets the predator more easily ply his trade.

Walker perfectly captures the physical and environment of holidays places such as these: small towns in Southern European countries which have, mostly for worse (though maybe locals would disagree), have given over to these holiday makers. Hotels rooms with likely permanent cigarette smell, littered with empty alcohol containers; morning streets lined with trash, only bars and clubs as far as the eye sees; and activities that seem designed to ply these youthful, nubile bodies with more alcohol than the human body can stand. You sit in wonderous horror as much older adults seem to think nothing of encouraging this. And it's one thing to allow for exploration of sex, it's another to deliberately put young people in an environment where they are not safe.

In this neon, EDM-infused fever nightmare, Walker captures the intensity felt by these young women, but also how cultural conditioning can leave them vulnerable, going against their better instincts. It's all partying and relishing in that youthful vigour, until the moment it all shifts: one morning, the five wake up in their respective beds to find Tara is not there. Em and Badger are worried, but Skye and Paddy brush it off. And instantly you know from the look on Paddy's face, that something is terribly wrong.

Warning: spoilers ahead

Consent is not just a mere utterance of affirmation; it's in the flirtation, a person's movement, the tone of their voice. But consent can be coerced by circumstance. A young woman alone, separated from her friends, in an isolated location, unsure of herself, with someone who does not have the best intentions, can be coerced into a 'yes' spoken out of fear. Her body language could be confusing, as she is confused. But we know the type of person to either ignore or not recognize the clear signs of lack of interest, combined with that confusion, and abuse it. Walker and her actors know exactly how to play this, to show the audience how someone in Tara's place would find herself coerced into consent, and how someone like Paddy would find a way to get the merest technical consent. You can decide for yourself if he is ignorant of how she really feels, or if he just doesn't care.

Walker infuses the scenes with that dark chill that now pervades the tone of the film; where the beginning Tara was all goffy yet genuine love and energy, she begins that withdrawal that comes from someone on whom violence has been inflicted, and yet she knows she cannot share that burdern. She knows that circumstance means she will be blamed. An audience will be hard-pressed not to try and yell at her friends on the screen to not just brush off how she's acting, but for too many, it's easier to ignore, because no one wants to believe it could happen to them, or that they would inflict such violence upon her.

Walker gives Bruce the time and space to show every nuance of Tara, whose life once seems full of unknown but expected promise, and within a few days, turns to unexpected hopelessness. Her friends don't know what's happened, and they'll be moving on, where she is now, as she sees it, stuck with a terrible memory and little to look forward to. It's a harrowing and heartwrenching performance.

A deeply and deliberately unsettling film, How to Have Sex exposes both the great highs and terrible lows that come with youthful pleasure and freedom. With nuanced and truthful performances and a keen eye to that haze of joy, drink, and lust that too often goes hand in hand with predation, Walker's debut showcases just how fuzzy the line of consent can be.

How to Have Sex

  • Molly Manning Walker
  • Molly Manning Walker
  • Anna Antoniades
  • Mia McKenna-Bruce
  • Lara Peake
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Molly Manning WalkerMia McKenna-BruceShaun ThomasLara PeakeDrama

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