How to Make a Good Film About Sex

in 52nd Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montréal

by Enoe Lopes Pontes

Molly Manning Walker knows how to make a movie about one of the most sensitive subjects in the world, and all the layers and subtexts within it. With her feature directorial debut, How to Have Sex, Walker invites the viewer to undertake an adventure with Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake), a trio of friends who are going to spend the holidays together. Walker delivers several deep and complex themes in 90 minutes of film.

The entrance into adulthood is the first item to be discussed, but there is much more being developed and shown on screen. British youth culture, the pressures of youth, sexism and racism, female rivalry, female insecurities… the topics are vast and explored in a very interesting format. The quantity of themes is grand and catches the attention, but How to Have Sex delivers all these with subtlety and dexterity.

Even though there are strong and distressing sequences, the cast and crew work in such a way that nothing is delivered as pure exposition, starting with the decoupage and framing by Molly Manning who, alongside editor Fin Oates, selects what to show and how to show it. The revelations about Tara, for example, are expressed in frames that close in around the young woman, who finds herself increasingly trapped and cornered by her current situation.

Her shyness and introspection are conveyed through dry cuts, camera movements, and effects. These visual resources elevate our proximity to Tara, her weaknesses, strengths, and all her vulnerability, her being alone, far from her home, concerned with her future, and needing to cope with all the expectations that society imposes on women, which, of course will change according to the stages of life.

The script, also by Walker, is brilliant. Tara’s inner complexities are unveiled progressively. The girl’s emotions, sensations, and fears are exposed and we discover how much she forces herself to be someone she is not, because she is afraid of rejection—a fear that tends to be stronger during one’s youth. At the same time, Walker does not lose sight of her critique of society.

It is on this link between social criticism and the specificities of youth that the entire creation of a fictional universe is based. We are granted entry into this jovial world, with parties, laughter, excitement, the bonds of friendship, lots of flirting, alcohol, cigarettes, and so on. Within this fun atmosphere, heavy subjects are placed. In addition to the possible identifications with the adventures of Tara and her friends, the lightness of the youthful animation makes the weight of Tara’s entire experience even heavier.

At the same time, this strategy crafts greater immersion, where the audience becomes complicit, smiles along with Tara, and builds a sense of empathy for her. It is from all these strategies that the fine lines between right and wrong are implied. What are the limits of consent? How should women behave? What is the escape for women if, when they are reserved, they are considered boring, and when they are freer, they are considered disposable?

Does patriarchy create disputes between women, who may betray each other’s trust just to win a silent competition? (Example: Skye’s actions). How can we put an end to the prejudices that are only legible if read between the lines? (Example: racism directed toward Em). Then, to crown the tension of all these questions and sensations provoked by the aesthetic resources of this feature, there is the turning point in the narrative: the disappearance of Tara.

This kind of twist works as a culmination of the plot, when the film turns into a thriller for at least half an hour. The play of light, cuts, and the performances create suffocation. It is in this question of “Where is Tara and who cares about her” that all the clues about the personality of the characters are given, as well as our sense as to who are the maintainers of sexist discourse, perverse actions, protection of patriarchy, and who are those who break with this logic.

Here it is possible to see Walker’s intelligence in creating positive and negative characters for both men and women. Without polarizing her argument, she creates layers in her story, with gradations that go beyond what is expected or a supposed Manichaeism. To enhance the emerging emotions of all the dramatic figures, cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni mixes the use of artificial and natural light, creating an opposition between day and night, the hidden and the explicitly exposed, the happy shadows and the intense luminosity, ultimately useless, for the supposed protection it could bring. In this way, How to Have Sex is imbued with depth, elements in dialogue with each other that form a cohesive visual, analytical, and discursive whole. This is an impeccable work, and it was a great surprise to learn that it is Walker’s directorial debut.

Now, we just have to wait and see what her next work will be—because Walker has already started at a very high level.

Enoe Lopes Pontes
Edited by José Teodoro