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A new coming-of-age film 'How to Have Sex' follows 3 teens on a spring break trip

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Partying on Lake Havasu, crowding into a hotel room at Panama City Beach, Cancun or Cabo - the spring break trip, a so-called rite of passage. For 16-year-old British teens Tara, Em and Skye, it's off to Greece for a holiday of clubbing and carousing on Crete in the new movie "How To Have Sex." Molly Manning Walker wrote and directed it. Mia McKenna-Bruce stars as Tara. And both join us now. Welcome to the program.

MOLLY MANNING WALKER: Thank you so much. Hello.

MIA MCKENNA-BRUCE: Hi. Thank you for having us.

NADWORNY: Did either of you do a spring break trip like this before? Like, can you relate to this experience in the film?

WALKER: Yeah, yeah, we both did.

MCKENNA-BRUCE: For me, it was - I mean, pretty much what you see in the film.

NADWORNY: Wow.

MCKENNA-BRUCE: It's kind of - someone described it to me a couple weeks ago, and I was like, that's it. They described it as like going into battle. You go in all guns blazing.

WALKER: Yeah. I went on, like, maybe six of them between the ages of 16 and 20. Some of the memories are like the best memories of my life, and then some of them are obviously more complicated.

NADWORNY: So it's probably already clear to our listeners that we're going to be discussing things that might not be suitable for children who may be listening, but that's also, in a way, kind of what this movie is about - that middle period when people are doing adult things with bodies and brains that aren't necessarily fully formed yet.

WALKER: Yeah, totally.

NADWORNY: One of the things in the film that really struck me is the storytelling felt so realistic, that kind of drunken chaos and confusion, the head-spinning feeling of being at a frat party and kind of not knowing where your friends are. You can't think straight. There's like this emotional roller coaster of it all. I wonder if you could just talk about kind of that world-building, and especially I'm interested in the pool, Molly.

WALKER: Yeah, for sure. We hired a documentary cinematographer, so that was one of the main things. The production design or the costuming was all sort of referenced from vlogs and TikTok. And we spent a long time scouting, and I guess we sort of eventually settled on probably the most party hotel in the resort, which is, like, right next to all the clubs. It wasn't until like a later date where we were all standing on the roof for a tech recce, and we were all looking at the pool and our heads like kind of craned. And we're like, is the pool a penis shape? And turns out the pool was a penis shape.

NADWORNY: Wow.

WALKER: And I guess that says a lot about kind of the environment and the sort of expectations of the environment.

NADWORNY: Yeah, you're like, I'm spot on, actually, in making this movie.

WALKER: And we picked the right hotel, I guess. And then, like, halfway through the shoot, the line producer came to me and was like, we're kind of under budget. Like, is there anything you want? And I was like, a drone shot of the pool.

NADWORNY: (Laughter) Mia, your character Tara starts off as this ball of energy. She has these great little jokes. Can you just start by telling us about her?

MCKENNA-BRUCE: Yeah, I mean, Tara kind of embodies that period of youth, you know, where you would really think you're a lot older than what you are, and you're kind of figuring it all out. And she does have this incredible energy, but then feels like she's got to continue with this energy, you know, even when she's not feeling like she wants to. So constantly trying to live up to the expectations of what people have of her, which I think is one of the things that resonates with a lot of people when they watch this film.

NADWORNY: She's also a virgin. What's her relationship to sex in this movie?

MCKENNA-BRUCE: Yeah, so when we first meet Tara, she's a virgin, and we see the girls discussing a lot that she is going to lose her virginity on this holiday. And one of her lines is literally, I don't want to die a virgin, which is hilarious because, I mean, we're looking at young girls that are, like, 16 years old and she thinks, you know, if she doesn't lose her virginity on this holiday, that's it. That's it for her, which just goes to show, you know, we're getting pressures from from all angles without having the tools to actually talk about it and understand what, what that means.

NADWORNY: You know, without giving anything away, is it true that in workshops before filming, girls who read assault scenes from the film didn't consider what was being described as assault?

WALKER: Yeah, you know, it would say, like, very clearly in the stage directions that Tara was very uncomfortable, and they would be like, but she said yes, so that's fine. So it was, like, an interesting comparison that they were sort of drawing to that meant, you know, yes is yes, basically.

NADWORNY: One night there's the scene where Tara is drunk and dancing and all you hear is her breathing and the pounding of the music. That scene feels like a turning point for your character.

MCKENNA-BRUCE: Yeah, yeah. You know, we follow Tara very closely on her figuring out what she's feeling and why she's feeling it. And I think we do reach this moment where she's a bit like, let me try and push through this because she doesn't know how to articulate it either, or who to go to, where to turn.

NADWORNY: Mia, I'm wondering, you know, you told W Magazine that you have two younger sisters, and you'd love for them to see this. Do you want them to see this out of pride for kind of their big sister, or because you want them to kind of get the message of the film about sex and consent?

MCKENNA-BRUCE: Definitely because I want them to get the message of the film, for sure. One of my sisters is 16 and the other one is 21, and sex has never really been an open conversation in our house. So for me, it was really important that, you know, from - as soon as I read the script, I was like, this is a brilliant way to open this conversation, to give us that in, you know, and also be able to talk about sex without necessarily using, like, yourself or your own experiences, just being able to have an open conversation around sex. And they have watched the film. They watched it when it first screened in London. And that's exactly what it's done for everyone in my family - kind of really opened up these conversations. And for me, like, that's just incredible that now my younger sisters and hopefully their friends as well, are starting to have this dialogue talking about what good sex is, you know, and, like, how it feels.

NADWORNY: Molly, I think this movie reminded me so much of being young. The whole film, I wanted to just be Tara's friend and give her a hug and kind of tell her everything I know now as an adult. For you, who kind of created her character and created this world, how does that make you feel? What's your takeaway from your debut film?

WALKER: It's been amazing. Like, I guess we thought we were sort of making quite a personal, small story. And I guess what we've realized over time is that it's a really universal story, and that's both amazing and kind of heartbreaking at the same time. And to see so many women feel seen by it - yeah, it feels like the conversation's got a long way to go, and we have a lot of battles to fight, I guess.

NADWORNY: That's Molly Manning Walker and Mia McKenna-Bruce. Their new film is "How To Have Sex." Thanks for speaking with us.

WALKER: Thank you so much.

MCKENNA-BRUCE: Thank you so much. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.