When the Party’s Over

The writer-director Molly Manning Walker perched on a stool at the Bushwick bar Mood Ring the other night, trying to talk her way out of doing karaoke. “I’m not a singer,” she said, apologetically, after the bartender encouraged her to make an attempt. “I’m pretty tone-deaf.” Growing up in London, in the two-thousands, she’d filmed her brother’s punk band from the pit; finding a way to get involved without playing an instrument, she said, had been a matter of urgency: “I was, like, ‘Fuck, give me a camera, quick!’ ”

The camera worked out. Manning Walker shot music videos for such artists as A$AP Rocky, became the cinematographer for the Sundance award winner “Scrapper,” and, last year, won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes for her début feature, “How to Have Sex.” The film, which opened this week, follows a trio of British girls through a Dionysian rite of passage: the post-exams holiday. In 2010, Manning Walker took hers in the Majorcan town of Magaluf; she went back years later to conduct research for the movie, this time taking notes on her nights out. “I was constantly writing down what people were saying,” she recalled. The plot, ultimately set in Crete, tracks the complicated bonds between teens—shaped by petty jealousies, easy intimacy, and try-hard posturing—at a pivotal moment.

Manning Walker, now thirty, has short, bleached-blond hair and a low-key geniality. She shot “How to Have Sex” during the winter, when tourists flee Crete for warmer climes. The all-important club scenes required hundreds of extras (“We had buses of teen-agers coming in from all over the island”), and she found herself having to coax her freezing leading lady, Mia McKenna-Bruce, back into the pool for additional takes. The team built camaraderie through soccer matches, barbecues, and sing-alongs. “The whole film was meant to be designed in two halves,” Manning Walker said. “The first part is like Disneyland—fun, all the colors are quite clean and not messy. And then, slowly, it disintegrates.”

She’d experienced this darker side of the scene herself. When she was in her teens, she was assaulted on a night out in London. “I was really affected by it, but also confused as to why no one wanted to speak about it,” she said. She turned the incident into a short film and stopped drinking for six years. (“I was still partying,” she clarified, “but it made me stop going to parties that were bad.”) Sobriety and distance put things in perspective. “I went to a wedding with a bunch of mates, and I was, like, Remember in Magaluf when we were on a bar crawl and they called two guys onstage and they got blow jobs?” Everyone did. “I was, like, Ohhh—I kind of thought I’d heightened that in my head.” Shooting the movie, she said, “redefined that space for me—going back to the party town and being in control of how I was living within it.”

Although “How to Have Sex” grapples with questions of consent—and has sparked debate at post-screening Q. & A.s—it’s neither moralistic nor grim. On the festival circuit, Manning Walker and her crew have become known for their commitment to carousing. “I guess it’s a good reputation to have,” she said. “I love the dance floor, especially for industry parties, because then you avoid the chat. ‘I’ll be by the speakers if anyone needs me!’ ”

A group of friends entered Mood Ring, and the bartender perked up: more potential singers. Manning Walker talked about her next project. She’d just finished a treatment for a film that deals with climate change. “I’m really interested in the decisions we’re making as human beings while the world is on fire,” she said. “I’m amazed that everyone is, like, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo, while in the background—” she mimed the sound of an explosion. She confided another dream: “I’d like to do big car crashes. Stunts! I want to do an action film! My agent keeps being, like, Stop saying that.”

The bartender made one last plea: “We’re doing karaoke—it doesn’t cost anything. Chill vibes! Judgment-free zone!” Finally, a man stood. “She’s going to pick something for me,” he said, gesturing to his companion. A Bad Bunny song started, and the guy struggled gamely to rap in Spanish.

Manning Walker turned her attention to the pair, with an anthropological glint. “First date or second date?” she whispered. “I think first.” The performance wasn’t going well, but the woman clapped to the beat in a show of support. Manning Walker revised her estimate: “O.K., maybe it’s the third.” She watched as the would-be boyfriend returned to his seat, sheepish but triumphant. She grinned and said, “It’s quite a good scene, to be fair.” ♦

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