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‘How to Have Sex’ Wins Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes Film Festival

It was an evening of surprises, song and spontaneous vamping at this year’s Un Certain Regard awards ceremony, with jury president John C. Reilly putting on quite a show for the assembled audience in addition to handing out six awards to films in the festival’s second-most prestigious competition.

But the real winner of the night was British freshman director Molly Manning Walker, who not only took the section’s top award for her buzzy, fluorescent debut feature “How to Have Sex,” but managed to accept in person against the odds. Not present at the ceremony when the announcement was made, owing to a flight delay, Manning Walker scrambled to the stage five minutes later — dressed, not unlike one of the principals in her youth-centered film, in a neon-green T-shirt and Adidas shorts — directly from her airport taxi. Reilly obligingly filled the time by singing two Great American Songbook standards for a delighted crowd.

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It was a suitably chaotic crowning for Manning Walker’s frenzied, whirlingly energetic film, a startling study of sexual mores and misadventures revolving around three British teenage girls on a boozily debauched vacation to Crete. Weeks ahead of the festival, MUBI acquired “How to Have Sex” for major territories, while glowing Cannes reviews confirmed the wisdom of their investment. Variety raved that the film “lays out the minefield of sexual education and consent for a post-#MeToo generation, with a precision to its ambiguities that will draw gasps from its characters’ contemporaries and elders alike.”

After being “welcomed to the family of cinema” by Reilly, a literally breathless Manning Walker — also an accomplished cinematographer, with credits including this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Scrapper” — gasped, “What the hell is going on?” Many in the audience might have wondered the same thing, though not for lack of goodwill: Warm applause and some whoops of exhilaration greeted the jury’s decision.

Another debut, Moroccan director Kamal Lazraq’s tense urban thriller “Hounds,” won the runner-up jury prize. The film, about a father and son dealing with the fallout of a botched kidnapping job on the streets of Casablanca, was commended by the jury for its vigorous social realism, while Variety praised it as “a notably punchy debut, both visceral and confidently cavalier in its depiction of everyday underworld brutality.” Paris-based outfit Charades is handling international sales.

Eyes will now be on “How to Have Sex” and “Hounds” tomorrow night, when the Camera d’Or jury announces its choice for the best first feature across all sections of the festival. Also competing for the award will be two more of tonight’s Un Certain Regard prizewinners: Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani’s “Goodbye Julia,” and Belgian-Congolese rapper-filmmaker Baloji’s “Omen.”

Kordofani won the specially designated Freedom Prize (described by Reilly as recognizing a film that “honors our sacred right to freedom”) for his debut — the first Sudanese film ever to play in Cannes’ official selection — which navigates the political tension between the country’s north and south regions via the cross-class relationship between two women. Visibly moved, the director thanked the people of Sudan, “for supporting me and, more importantly, supporting each other, holding onto life and not giving up.” Baloji, meanwhile, won the New Voice Prize (“for opening our eyes to new approaches to cinema, image and storytelling”) for his surreally experimental tale of witch trials in contemporary Africa.

The Best Director award, meanwhile, went to a very different Moroccan study of a Casablanca neighborhood from “Hounds”: Journalist-turned-filmmaker Asmae El Moudir’s documentary “The Mother of All Lies” examines both her national and family history through the prism of the country’s tragic 1981 Bread Riots. Nonfiction cinema was further represented with an Ensemble Prize awarded not just to the onscreen cast, but the collective crew and creative team, of the Brazilian hybrid “The Buriti Flower,” which merges vérité observation and storytelling in its portrait of the country’s endangered Indigenous Krahô tribe.

Reilly presided over a jury that also included filmmakers Davy Chou (an Un Certain Regard contender last year with “Return to Seoul”) and Alice Winocour, as well fellow actors Paula Beer and Émilie Dequenne. The American star began the ceremony with a lengthy but plainly sincere monologue (delivered both in English and stumbling French) commending all the “brave and intrepid souls” in the section for completing films in the first place.

That was probably little consolation to the night’s unawarded films — which rather surprisingly included Rodrigo Moreno’s hotly tipped, MUBI-acquired heist epic “The Delinquents,” as well as as Warwick Thornton’s Cate Blanchett starrer “The New Boy” — but it was a welcome sentiment nonetheless.

Full list of winners:

Un Certain Regard Prize: “How to Have Sex,” Molly Manning Walker

Jury Prize: “Hounds,” Kamal Lazraq

Best Director: “The Mother of All Lies,” Asmae El Moudir

Freedom Prize: “Goodbye Julia,” Mohamed Kordofani

Ensemble Prize: “The Buriti Flower,” João Salaviza, Renée Nader Messora, cast and crew

New Voice Prize: “Omen,” Baloji

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