The dark side of the teen holiday: Drug-filled British film How to Have Sex offers parents eye-opening insight into girls’ post-exam trips abroad

The dark side of the teen holiday: Drug-filled British film How to Have Sex offers parents eye-opening insight into girls’ post-exam trips abroad

  • The film has already been lauded with a prestigious award at Cannes festival 

A new British film is giving parents an eye-opening glimpse into the reality of post-exam teen holidays as the drugs and sex-filled movie warns of the risks girls face when travelling abroad. 

How To Have Sex tells the story of three teenage girls on a coming-of-age trip to Malia in all its gritty, dark detail, and is already being lauded as a huge hit.

Despite a relatively unknown cast and a directorial debut for Molly Manning Walker, 30, it picked up the Un Certain Regard award of this year’s Cannes Film Festival with an eight-minute standing ovation.

It’s being praised for its sensitive and raw handling of real-life dangers many young women experience including toxic relationships and sexual assault, as well as not being believed by authorities such as the police.

The film’s haunting realness comes straight from the horse’s mouth, being partly inspired by director Manning Walker’s own experience of sexual assault at the age of 16.

Molly Manning Walker (right, pictured with Mia Mckenna Bruce) made the film after her own experiences of being sexually assaulted aged 16

How to Have Sex follows three 16-year-olds, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake) and Em (Enva Lewis), who go abroad to have the ‘best holiday ever’ with Tara hoping to have sex for the first time.

Yet their friendship is far from perfect: while Tara struggles to come to terms with the awful experiences she is subjected to at the hands of a group of boys they meet on the island, Em is rather clueless while Skye is chronically insecure and jealous, leaning towards open hostility.

The group initially seem to have an alcohol-fuelled fun fest – until they meet a group of boys, with Paddy (played by Samuel Bottomley) and Badger (Shaun Thomas) initially becoming close pals.

The holiday soon takes a sour turn after teenager Paddy reveals his violent tendancies as he coerces a vulnerable, blackout-drunk Tara and sexually assaults her – with the all out, wild desperation portrayed in the film leaving the viewer in no doubt as to the get-up, do-it-all-again-tomorrow cycle Manning Walker portrays.

The sexual assaults are never called rape in the film – just as with assaults in real life, the incidents are not clear cut.

Speaking to the Times, Manning Walker explained this is exactly the impression she wanted to create. 

She said: ‘We did workshops around the UK where we interviewed young people about their concept of consent and gave them scenes from the film to read.

‘So many girls and boys were like, “She said yes, so that’s consent.” Or, “Well, she didn’t get out of the bed, so it’s not an assault.” That made me really sad. We think there’s all this progression about young people and sex, but nothing has changed. In fact, it might be getting worse.’

Manning Walker, who began her career as a cinematographer, suffered a similar experience when she was 16 after her drink was spiked on a night out.

When she took the case to the police, they told her not to push forward with the report, even though the assailant already had a criminal record.

The holiday soon takes a sour turn after teenager Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) reveals his violent tendancies as he coerces a vulnerable, blackout-drunk Tara and sexually assaults her

Molly Manning Walker and Mia Mckenna-Bruce brought the script to life as they show the darker side to being a teenage girl

Manning Walker said that the sexual predator eventually faced prison for a bank robbery, which made her question why he could be charged for that and not for hurting someone.

It was only when discussing other incidents with friends at a wedding and realising they all had similar experiences that she began writing the script for How To Have Sex, before it was picked up and funded by Film4.

Due to her own experiences of sexual assault, creating a welcoming and safe atmosphere on set was key for the young director.

The set would be closed and an intimacy coach was around at all times to ensure all the actors felt comfortable.

Manning Walker described how filming was often paused so that all involved could discuss what was happening and ensure everyone felt comfortable before picking the scene back up again.

Now she hopes the film will eventually make its way into schools as part of sex education.

She told the Times: ‘My message to boys and girls is, we need to change how we learn how to have sex. We need to start talking about female pleasure, good sex and consent, empathy and understanding. 

‘It’s not about “men are bad”. The aim isn’t to lock boys out or point fingers. I just want to open a conversation about it.’

The early success of the film was unexpected for a directorial debut – but it took the Cannes festival completely by surprise.

And Manning Walker is experienced in the film world, having worked on countless projects before turning to a writer/director for How To Have Sex.

Her mother, Lesley Manning, is an editor turned director most well known for Ghostwatch (1992) and Help (2019). She also worked on television classics such as The Story of Tracy Beaker and Ghosts.

Ghostwatch, a pseudo-documentary, was so successful it prompted 30,000 complaints to the BBC after it was aired from people who were convinced it was real – and was banned from being shown by the broadcaster for ten years. 

Manning Walker’s father is a writer and creator while even her brother Charlie works in the same world as a lighting director.

He is also frontman of Chubby and the Gang, a punk band, with his sister directing his music videos.

But the family hasn’t always been so successful. The young director has previously spoken of a ‘really hard time’ as a child when ‘no-one was earning money’. 

Elsewhere in the film, cast in the starring role is famed child actress Mia McKenna-Bruce, who shot to attention in her role in The Story of Tracy Beaker spin-offs Tracy Beaker Returns and The Dumping Ground.

Since then she’s appeared in Persuasion, Vampire Academy and an episode of Netflix-hit series The Witcher.

Her opposite co-star Samuel Bottomley also began acting young, appearing in popular TV series such as Wolf Hall, Ackley Bridge and Ladhood.

He is well-known for Ghost Stories (2017) and Tyrannosaur (2011).

Elizabeth Haigh

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