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Crucial Lessons in Sex and Friendship with BAFTA Rising Star Winner Mia McKenna-Bruce

Mubi’s How to Have Sex neither instructs nor chides—it’s a conversation starter.

by Sierra Riley

Flushed with neon, booze, and opportunity, cinematographer Molly Manning Walker’s feature-length directorial debut How to Have Sex finds teenage Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and her two best friends embarking on a rite-of-passage trip to the Greek party town of Malia. The girls rip through club-lined, vomit-streaked streets with an electric sense of agency.

The keepers of virtue (school, parents) are far away—geographically, at least—and so the temporarily liberated young women descend into a wonderland of vice. They survive on vodka shots and cheesy chips. They slur-sing karaoke and make mean jokes about Tara’s virginity. They take long drags on their ciggies at the beach and mingle with older boys in dingy hotel rooms. Their objective is crystal clear: have the “best holiday ever.” Murkier are the tacit rules of friendship and consent. 

Walker’s film shows her mastery over atmosphere. Strobing lights flash in nightmarish anticipation. Over the course of the film—lapsing a handful of drunken days spent in Malia—Tara’s hopes climb and crash to throbbing techno beats. The promise of each night out is blunted by the ugly break of dawn. This daily rising-peaking-falling action reflects the cyclical nature of a hook-up culture that renders the experience of sexual assault ubiquitous among young women in particular. 

Yet the director does not wag an admonitory finger. Instead, she leverages the female gaze to tell this complicated but treacherously common coming-of-age story. Scenes depicting non-consensual sex are empathetically shot (both an intimacy coordinator and a therapist were present on set). Crucially, the focus remains on the protagonist’s experience. 

Driving the narrative, McKenna-Bruce’s expressive face possesses the power to wordlessly communicate whole emotions, thoughts—sentences, even—and dictate the emotional temperature of the film. Tara’s giggly and boisterous, at turns hurt by the not-so-subtle digs from her jealous friend, or visibly uncomfortable when nearing too-real sexual prospects. The character’s eagerness to lose her virginity precedes her readiness to do so. 

“A lot of what we wanted to do with the film is show that the pressure was coming from everywhere,” McKenna-Bruce explains somberly in an interview with RANGE. “Everyone’s got a role to play in this.” Here, she calls out not only assaulters, but also educators, bystanders, and friends. “The main takeaway is just to be a kind person and realize the impact that your actions have on others. Like, it’s huge. It can stay with people for life and it can change the course of someone’s life.”

 

“The main takeaway is just to be a kind person and realize the impact that your actions have on others.”

 

The actor was recently awarded the prestigious BAFTA Rising Star Award for her performance in How to Have Sex. More than ever, her talents are becoming sought after. She is undoubtedly one to watch. And when she’s on screen as Tara, a firecracker right from the start, it’s near impossible to take your eyes off her. Then, as the character is violated by friends and strangers, her physical language stutters. Her shrieks of glee are muted. She’s been irrevocably changed by this horrific experience, but she must march on. In a final scene, as the girls rush toward their gate at the airport, Tara bellows in the cadence of her former self: she is coming home. 

Interestingly, McKenna-Bruce notes that the film has resonated with generations well beyond the coming-of-age bracket. “There’s been quite a few [older] women who have come forward […] who have never known how to have these conversations,” she says. There was even a grown man in the audience at the Cannes Film Festival, she recalls, who distressfully identified with Tara’s assaulter. Dwelling in the grey areas of consent, the film empowers its viewers with a language that its protagonist, like many people across generational and gender spectra, is dangerously unfamiliar with. “Hopefully, we’re moving forward,” McKenna-Bruce says. “Hopefully, we’re giving people more tools to have more conversations.”