“How to Have Sex”: A Sharp Drama with Blank Characters

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“How to Have Sex,” the first feature by the young British filmmaker Molly Manning Walker, is a far more substantial film than its clickbait title suggests. It’s a coming-of-age story centered on a sexual awakening—an almost hackneyed premise, but one that, in Walker’s hands (as both writer and director), produces results of unusual emotional intensity. However, the story’s searing results have less impact than they might have had because of what precedes them, a problem that sheds light on matters at the heart of cinematic storytelling—the construction of plot at the expense of characterization, at the expense of traits that help audiences identify with characters and believe in them as real people. The stakes prove high: in the complex task of creating characters and defining their milieu, filmmakers put themselves on the line, revealing (or, for that matter, concealing) their own personalities and ways of seeing the world.

It’s the end of a school year, early summer, and three sixteen-year-old British girls are on vacation at a seaside resort town in Crete, to celebrate, decompress, and fret as they await exam results. Their grades will determine whether they can enroll in high-school classes that bring the chance of attending university. Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the protagonist, is exuberant and overflowing with cheer and chatter, using comically roundabout logic to persuade the hotel’s desk clerk to give them a poolside room. Skye (Lara Peake) is confident, judgmental, and acerbic; Em (Enva Lewis) is quieter and more orderly. The resort skews young, with a spring-break vibe, and the girls half jokingly instigate a competition for who “gets laid the most.” It seems that Skye and Em already have some degree of experience, but Tara has come with a mission—to lose her virginity. Skye playfully ramps up the pressure, telling Tara, “If you don’t get laid on this holiday, then you never will.”

Opportunity knocks: while Tara is doing her makeup on the balcony, she gets chatted up by a young man, nicknamed Badger (Shaun Thomas), who’s lounging on the neighboring one. He’s brashly playful, with a big red-lips tattoo on his neck. He works as a van driver and is there with a pair of roommates—a guy named Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and a woman named Paige (Laura Ambler). The two trios of neighbors quickly get together for drinking and party games, including a round of Never Have I Ever in which Skye brings up the sensitive subject of virginity. A pair of m.c.s who run big parties for the vacationers keep sex front and center, with a variety of ribald games that they stage with the young revellers, while liquor flows absurdly freely, and that quietly bring to mind the issue of consent. Tara and Badger form a warm, though tacit, connection, but amid the throng they are driven apart by a misunderstanding. Tara wanders off alone. The next morning, she is nowhere to be found, and a general panic takes hold among her old and new friends.

I saw “How to Have Sex” twice, an experience that proved surprising. When I first watched the movie several weeks ago, the setup—for the misunderstanding that fuels the main dénouement—seemed to take up easily two-thirds of the film. In fact, that setup turned out to be barely a third of the movie. The reason the exposition seems so much longer is that it’s mechanical, practical, and borderline impersonal.

To write functional dialogue—distilling salient plot points into lines plausibly delivered by characters—is a technique, not an art. It’s far harder to write talk, to compose scenes and interactions that render characters complicated in the way that people are—with odd interests, surprising targets of curiosity, family stories, religious beliefs, opinions on music and movies and TV and clothing and politics, something to say about themselves and the world around them.

What makes “How to Have Sex” often feel like a slog, despite its brisk tempo, is the near-total absence of such talk. Walker doesn’t give her characters much of an identity; Em is the brain of the trio, sure to pass her exams; Tara is pretty sure she’ll fail. Skye suspects that her mother hardly registers her absence; Tara tells a good joke, except when she loses the thread. They’re all fond of “chips” (i.e., fries), especially with cheese. To keep the action moving, Walker cuts from scene to scene, from plot point to plot point, leaving no time for the characters to merely be, no space for them to think or speak except when they have something to say that conveniently advances the action.

This impersonality is all the more dismaying because the dramatic crux of the film is exceptionally effective. The scene of the misunderstanding, which occurs in a crowd and involves a complex and volatile combination of bewilderment, jealousy, indignation, broken trust, wounded pride, and emotional self-defense, is more than just a driver of plot. It’s a pivot point in Tara’s life, the kind of moment that, as rapidly as it passes, will weigh in her memory forever. Walker, who has worked for a decade as a cinematographer, has a keen eye for the parsing of a crowd, the isolation of a moment of stillness amid frenetic agitation, the sense of a distant glimpse of what one can’t bear to look at and can’t bear to avoid. This moment of dark recognition compresses its psychological magnitude into a clear and taut set of actions and images. It’s the core of the movie and provides the emotional power that propels the rest of the action.

This inspired sequence is matched by another twist, a tweak of the time frame, which has the effect of expanding the moment in question over time, like a lingering shadow that marks its drastic inward effect. What Tara experiences then, and what she experiences as a result of that painful realization, unfolds via details that have major implications—practical, emotional, perhaps even legal. Walker stages critical, immensely troubling scenes (which I’m keeping veiled for fear of spoilers) with a tremulous sense of suspense aptly conveying their momentousness. Yet these scenes are dropped into the film at a remove both from their practical circumstances (their immediate preludes and follow-ups) and from their wider implications. The “after” is much after; the reflection and the conversation that they inspire are long delayed and truncated—terseness and silence that stand as plot points rather than personal necessities. The characters don’t seem to exist at all between the scenes of their significant action, because Walker doesn’t imagine the story as part of an unbroken skein of time, any more than she develops the characters as complex people whose personalities involve a wide and varied range of traits and passions, experiences and ideas, that implicitly and explicitly come into play throughout their daily lives.

There’s a hint of a strategy in Walker’s reduction of her characters to plot-determined stick figures whose individuality relies mainly on whatever the actors can provide. The movie offers a didactic universality that implicitly pushes its subjects off the screen and into discussions in the lobby and the café afterward. The question of what Tara could and should do becomes the question of what a given viewer—especially a female one—would imagine or advise doing in such circumstances, and what the world at large should do. The movie is in contradiction with itself; the aspiration to a quasi-analytical, nearly forensic analysis of events having wider roots in civic life is divided from the specifics that, precisely, would tether the characters to the world around them. In filtering out so many particulars, Walker refuses to divulge what she finds interesting about these individuals, and indeed suggests that nothing really interests her about them at all except for the problems that they face. The paradox is poignant: the movie is, at its best, so alive to its characters’ immediate experience that it’s all the more regrettable that we do not really know them at all. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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