There was an acting skill so crucial to the performances in How to Have Sex that writer-director Molly Manning Walker says it became a “huge part” of the film’s casting process. “It was like, ‘Act drunk!’ – and instantly you could see,” she explains. Someone told Walker, making her directorial debut after several years as a cinematographer (the recent Sundance-bowing Scrapper) and making shorts, that a key approach was to “pretend you’re not drunk, and that you’re hiding it from everyone.”
Within the first couple of scenes, it’s clear why this was such a key element. The film, premiering in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes, follows three British teenage girls out for the summer holiday of a lifetime in Malia, the Greek resort and a party town notorious for its debauched nightlife (especially with young Brits). Their vacation plans are relatively simple: to party, get wasted and hook up.
Played by Mia McKenna-Bruce (recently seen in Netflix’s Persuasion), Lara Peake (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), and newcomer Enva Lewis (selected from 250 hopefuls), the trio fulfills the “get wasted” part with expert precision and is seen falling comically out of clubs and bars, vomiting in the streets and staggering back to their hotel room, only to kick it off all again the next day.
Alongside the cast’s clear ability to appear heavily intoxicated in front of the camera, there was another method deployed, one perhaps not taught in drama school. “We would also do this thing — which we’ve got in all the outtakes — where before every scene that they’re drunk, we’d spin them around on their feet,” says Walker. As McKenna-Bruce jokes: “Yeah, I think that’s a bit of Stanislavski.”
The wild partying scenes — actually shot in Malia (but out of season, so the clubs were mostly filled with local Greek extras, all cast to look like young Brits) — will likely divide audiences between those who want to be there with them having spirits poured down their throats and those who would prefer to be literally anywhere else. Large parts were inspired by Walker’s own experiences, with her admitting to going on many similar holidays as a teenager. “I was a very different person,” she says. “Fake hair, fake eyelashes, covered in fake tan.”
Some of the scenes in How to Have Sex came from recalling those memories and establishing if they did, in fact, occur (including one of the most eye-opening scenes in which two Brits compete to be given a blowjob onstage in front of hundreds of drunken, cheering partygoers). “I met up with a bunch of friends and was like, ‘That did happen, right?’ because it was kind of mad.”
For all the chaos, there’s the looming sense that there’s something unpleasant up ahead. When it eventually arrives, the story takes a darker turn, one dealing with sexual consent and exactly what that means. Is saying “yes” enough? What happens if someone’s clearly not having a good time? “We wanted to delicately talk about the gray area of assault,” Walker says. “And for me, it’s about the education around sex, especially with young guys, and how no one talks about female pleasure — everyone talks about male pleasure.”