Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 02, 2024 10:40 am 
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Life's not a party

After their exams, three British 16-year-old girl best-mates go to Greek party resort Malia on the island of Crete for a drunken youth holiday. Its a rites-of-passage riot of Tequila shots, clubbing and sex and should be the best summer weekend of their lives. But it isn't, and how it isn't is vividly and memorably told in this feature debut from Molly Manning Walker that won the 2023 Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes. This is the kind of film that hurts you, and eventually may make you do some thinking. Some may consider it doctrinaire, with too much of a bone to pick. Many women, on the other hand, may relate whose first experience was being raped without quite knowing it or being sure.

The focus is all on Tara or Taz (the very touching Mia McKenna-Bruce) who's the "massive virgin" of the three and wants to end that, presumably. The skinny Em (Enva Lewis), who's black, is the smart one, and also the sensitive one, vis-à-vis Tara. Skye (Lara Peake) seems more mature or knowing, perhaps beautiful; perhaps not. She makes jokes on Tara that aren't funny.

The loss of virginity takes place. But these drunken youth holiday resorts are nightmares of forced, 24-hour partying with young males running off the tracks. The result is a big bummer for Tara. As Lovia Gyarkye notes in Hollywood Reporter,[the shift from hilarity to a "sense of dread" is smoothly executed without losing the story's "momentum." For me this was an adept depiction of how destructively unfun wild youthful partying can be, even when you're so young you barely know what's happening (most of the crowd is a few years older than Tara and her mates). Or, as David Erlich aptly puts it on IndieWire, "They signed up for Spring Breakers, only to find themselves stranded in something closer to an episode of 'Skins.'" ("Skins" is the pioneering 2007-2013 UK youth series about a group of school kids and their families, where some astonishingly bad things happen.)

The girls use some fast talking to score beach-front rooms, and in the next balcony there turn out next morning to be two boys and a girl who hail from the North of England. First encountered is Badger (Shaun Thomas), a pretty bleach-blond boy with tattoos who comes on to Tara, but very gently. It's the big, tall, boyish Paddy (Samuel Bottomley, who as a boy had a significant role in Paddy Constantine's devastating 2010 film Tyrannosaur), who winds up taking her down to the beach that night, where they, in British slang, "hook up." It is what she wanted but not the way she wanted it. It is, in a way, by consent. He manhandles her and says "Yeah? Yeah?" and she says "Yeah." But what choice had she? An age-old question.

After this Tara goes walkabout, away from Paddy and away from her mates. She runs into some "legends," nice, well off young boys and girls who seeing her derailed from her mates, take her in for the night's revelry and let her sleep at their villa when day breaks. When she eventually wanders back to her room with a concerned Skye and Em, and Paddy and Badger are there, we know well, without a word spoken, that she isn't right.

She doesn't say much, but her girlfriends' effort to get Taz to tell all bear little fruit. Em senses something is wrong and Badger protects her when she retreats from that night's revelry when she returns to go to sleep. Then Paddy comes and gets in bed with her... It is all too painful to tell. On top of it all Tara learns from her mum that she has failed her exams and will have to retake them. So ends the three girls' last night at Malia.

The crowd scenes of youthful revelry are adeptly shot, but Manning Walker's skill at conventional filmmaking may be a little hard to judge by How to Have Sex. Cahiers du Cinéma found this film "opaque" and "banal," and some other French reviews were devastating. The French critical response was considerably less favorable than the Anglophone one, with the AlloCiné press rating coming out to 3.6 (72%). The acting is good - even if the characters are little developed - and Manning Walker, who also wrote the script, has drawn a haunting performance out of Mia McKenna-Bruce, who has been included in the BAFTAs' Best Actress list. We look forward to what is to come from the just-turned-thirty writer-director, who also was the cinematographer this year of Charlotte Regan's light-hearted Scrapper. (The dp here was Nicolas Canniccioni.)

How to Have Sex, 93 mins., debuted at Cannes May 19, 2023 in the Un Certain Regard section, winning the Un Certain Regard Prize. Also shown in festivals in dozens of other countries, including Sundance January 18, 2024, the film was acquired for distribution to multiple venues by Mubi. It was released theatrically or on the internet in numerous countries in Nov. and Dec. 2023 and continuing in early 2024. It releases in the US Feb. 2, 2024. Metacritic rating: 80%.

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