Girls’ Trip: Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex

Review / November 2023
Girls’ Trip: Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex 
by Ella Fox-Martens

Three girls set out for Malia in the nervous period between sitting their GSCEs and receiving their results, where they drink, dance, and engage in generally mindless hedonism. By the time they return to England, one of them is irrevocably changed. What happened to Tara? More importantly — does How to Have Sex depict a rape, and if so, how many?

Molly Manning-Walker’s directorial debut indulges in the kind of seedy, neon aesthetic that owes much to Spring Breakers; plenty of skin, skimpy bikinis, flashing club lights and enough cheap alcohol to make you feel ill. Yet it realises a raw dread in burgeoning female sexuality that Korine was never all that interested in — the knowledge that though objectification can be fun, its consequences are life-altering, and some would argue, inevitable. Tara, Skye and Em switch in and out of tight dresses with terrible cut-outs and push-up bras, eating cheesy chips and laughing at stupid, teenage things. The camera notes their bodies, but doesn’t overly sexualise them, lingering instead on their faces and hands, wistfully catching their cheap rings, their paper wristbands; the detritus of girlhood. Tara is the only virgin of the group, and also the only one who truly seems to believe she’s failed her exams, lending her a vulnerability which all her loud, bubbly confidence can’t quite compensate for. The hard-nosed Skye sees that weakness and pulls at it in both herself and her friend, jealous at the attention Tara gets, and smug in her own experience. Em is kinder and more empathetic, but is relatively sidelined in the narrative, due to her queerness, and thus is exempt to some of the gender and sexual dynamics that Skye and Tara are subject to (an interesting choice, given that Em is the only non-white character in the movie). Their nuances are carefully drawn, surfacing in quiet remarks about Em’s upcoming attendance at a Swiss school, and Skye’s mother, who probably “hasn’t even noticed they’ve gone.” They all want to get laid, but it’s clear the emotional centre of their lives is the intoxicating friendship between them; a claustrophobic, teenage alchemy.

When the girls collide with the older inhabitants of the room next to them — good-natured Badger, slick(-er) Paddy and the slightly underwritten Paige, whose character note seems to just be ‘gay’ — things get more charged. Tara fancies the goofily-tattooed, harmless Badger until he takes part in a trashy, public sex game, horrifying her. After that, the girls wake up the next morning to find out that Tara is missing, while Paddy is making smug, cocky insinuations about what happened the night before. What did happen? We’re left to think the worst, but not for long. In a deeply uncomfortable scene notably devoid of the dance music that’s soundtracked most of the movie, Paddy takes Tara to the beach and they have sex. Whether Tara fully agrees to that sex is largely up to interpretation, though later flashbacks to her clenched fists and pained expression make it clear she didn’t enjoy it. She verbally consents, but Paddy is overbearing and rough, and she spends the rest of the night drinking and partying in a sad haze. In the morning, the movie luxuriates in one of its best shots, as Tara walks home through the garbage-ridden, deserted main street, wiping tears from her eyes. Whatever happened, we know it’s not right; that it carries the spectre of real violence.

After that, Tara’s bubbly, loud confidence (she’s the one who insists on a pool-view room where her friends waver and hang back, and who belts out terrible karaoke at a crowded bar) abruptly recedes. Over the next few nights, she alternately reassures her friends that nothing happened and succumbs to silent, shocked rumination. Em notices her friend’s moodiness, but all is pretty much forgotten after the girls receive their GCSE results, resulting in celebration for Em and Skye, and despondency for Tara. Skye’s assertion later that Tara should work the cloakroom at her fantasised restaurant, because she has ‘no other choice’, is particularly cruel. Mia McKenna-Bruce delivers a brilliant, grounding performance here, never letting Tara’s despair tip over into full-blown melodrama. Her wide eyes and careful consideration of physicality (she dances wildly, desperately, as if she’s trying to get away from something) do a disturbingly convincing job at reminding you Tara is still a child.

Left at that, How to Have Sex could have been much more ambiguous, but Manning-Walker chooses to portray a second — and much more clear-cut — case of assault as Paddy begins to rape Tara as she’s sleeping, though he’s interrupted. This second instance leaves her obviously distraught, and though Badger seems to know Paddy’s done something wrong, he makes no real move to intervene. This choice, I think, turns the movie from a rumination on consent to a lecture; a decided but not unwelcome direction. There are heartbreaking little touches that indicate Tara is suffering, as she leaves for the airport in comfy, oversized clothes where her friends still wear skirts and tank tops. Later, she begins to weep to Em in the duty-free section, only to correct herself and claim that she should have said something to stop it happening. But the ending scene jars tonally a little too much for a film that’s been very clear that Tara has been the subject of violence, and is somewhat hackneyed aside: Em takes her hand and says ‘we can do it’ and Tara suddenly screams ‘we’re going home!’ in a moment of jubilant hope that doesn’t feel entirely earned.

For me, the most affecting moment in the movie takes place in the car on the way to the flight, where Tara glances over and sees her friends asleep on each other’s shoulders. They’ve passed their GSCEs with flying colours (Skye even snidely exclaims that she might go the same school as Em next year, and makes a point to tell Tara that she’ll miss her next year) but she has failed, and her path is wrenchingly uncertain. She is being left behind; at risk of losing her friends and her future. Wounded and drowning in her hoodie, she stares out of the window. For the rest of her life, we realise, Tara will carry what happened in Malia with her; a tragedy all the more brutal for how terribly ordinary it is.

Image Credits: Image 1-2: Film Stills, How to Have Sex (2023). Courtesy of Mk2.