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How to Have Sex 2023 Mia McKenna-Bruce
How to Have Sex, 2023(Film still)

How to Have Sex’s Mia McKenna-Bruce: ‘It’s hard to talk about trauma’

The star of the new film about consent, hookup culture and the aftermath of assault –opens up about the feature and why this is a story so many people can relate to. Plus, listen to an exclusive mix from James Jacob who scored the soundtrack

“It’s hard to talk about trauma because, as you talk about it, you relive parts of it,” says Mia McKenna-Bruce, the 26-year-old star of the evocative drama How to Have Sex. “You try to talk about stuff, but then you get the pressures of your friends, or something else comes up. It never feels like the right time.”

Although the title makes it almost impossible to search on Google, Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex is an electrifying feature that seeks to open up discussions around consent, hook-up culture, and the aftermath of assault. If anything, you wish that the film’s main characters – a trio of 16-year-old girls celebrating the end of exams on a trip to Malia – could have had their own version of Manning Walker’s debut feature to watch themselves.

In fact, attempts are already being made to show the film in classrooms. “You have sex education in school, but you don’t discuss consent,” says McKenna-Bruce, speaking in Corinthia Hotel shortly before a sold-out screening at the London Film Festival. “Or, at least, I never did at school. If those conversations aren’t being had, how are we supposed to know anything about that?”

At first, How to Have Sex takes a docudrama approach to the type of cheap package holiday many Brits undergo as teens, whether they want to or not. Skye (Lara Peake), Em (Enva Lewis), and Tara (McKenna-Bruce) start partying as if their lives – not livers – depend on it. When not downing vodka shots in clammy clubs, they’re screaming their heads off, often declaring that it’s the best holiday ever, a fact that wouldn’t need to be enunciated if it were true.

Whereas Skye and Em are sexually experienced, Tara is a virgin, a burden she carries on each sweaty night, especially during a game of “Never Have I Ever” with the slightly older group in a neighbouring flat. However, Tara is traumatised after losing her cherry to one of their new acquaintances, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), a guy who forces himself upon her on a beach. Despite Tara eventually uttering the word “yes”, the encounter is far from consensual.

“Tara says no quite a lot of times in the lead-up to her saying yes,” says McKenna-Bruce. “The yes is considered final, but the multiple nos she gives before that aren’t considered final. It’s not like you say no until you say yes. It shouldn’t be.” She sighs. “For a lot of people, that first assault scene is ambiguous and a grey area. Actually, it shouldn’t be, because, from the off-set, she said no. She’s clearly uncomfortable. She ends up saying yes because that’s her way out of that situation.”

Not only does the incident leave Tara feeling violated, Em and Skye fail to detect any distress. Instead, Skye reveals jealousy that Tara got laid, and Tara remains unable to verbalise to her supposed BFFs about why their beach paradise now resembles a stale, booze-ridden cesspit. In turn, the character’s body language slumps, and each smile is evidently strained, a delicate switch expertly executed by McKenna-Bruce. “At that age, you don’t know how to communicate those feelings,” the actor explains. “You don’t know where to even start.”

While convincing as a 16-year-old, McKenna-Bruce was 25 during principal photography, and gave birth to a child earlier in 2023. Like the rest of the cast, she’s young enough to remember her teenage years but old enough to have perspective. Similarly, Manning Walker wrote the script in her late 20s, revealing in interviews that she was sexually assaulted at 16; the incident also inspired her 2020 short film Good Thanks, You?

The impact is already evident on social media. Since Cannes, where How to Have Sex won the Un Certain Regard prize, Twitter has been flooded with comments identifying with Tara. Even before any violence, the film nails the performative nature of its binge-drinking, clubbing characters pretending to be elated at all times. One of Tara’s new friends, Badger (Shaun Thomas), receives a drunken blowjob on stage in front of strangers; the next morning, he unconvincingly insists it was the greatest moment of his life, even though he can’t remember any of it.

“Whether it’s consent, friendship, or being young on your first holiday, it’s a story so many people can relate to,” says McKenna-Bruce. “In playing Tara, I’m aware that this is so many people’s story to tell.” She’s keen for men to watch the movie, too. “It was never the intention to make it ‘women against men’ or ‘men are the enemy’. It’s a conversation starter, because how are we meant to move forward if we can’t have this conversation together? If we make Tara a major victim or Paddy a monster, then people step out of it, and don’t see themselves reflected anymore because it’s an extreme version of them. We see the pressures of the world pushing these people to points that they’re not necessarily ready for.”

Before How to Have Sex, McKenna-Bruce was best known for playing Tee Taylor in a TV series adapted from Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker books; other roles included brief stints on Holby City, EastEnders, and The Bill. In terms of movies, you might have caught McKenna-Bruce in Netflix’s Dakota Johnson-starring Persuasion – or, at least, however long you made it through a Jane Austen adaptation that was savaged by critics. “It was quite funny,” she says, with a laugh. “One review was like, ‘Anyone involved in this movie deserves to go to prison.’ I was like, ‘I want that framed.’”

So far, How to Have Sex has received mostly ecstatic responses, although a mixed review in Sight & Sound magazine referred to it as “unrealistically bleak”, claiming that “no one in the film once seems to enjoy a thing about sex”. McKenna-Bruce hasn’t read the piece I’m referring to but comments, “I think a lot of times, maybe particularly with that review, they’re trying to watch a different movie. If that’s what you want, then that’s not our film.”

With How to Have Sex rated 15, McKenna-Bruce is eager for young people to catch it at the cinema, but she’s also observed how it’s resonated with older generations. “They’ve been saying they had a similar experience, and never realised it was wrong. Only after watching it, they realised, ‘That’s why I felt that way.’ They can now start on their journey of healing.”

Although Manning Walker was the cinematographer on the fantastical drama Scrapper, she takes a more grounded, naturalistic approach to How to Have Sex, forcing the viewer to walk in Tara’s high heels as she endures hangovers, physical and mental exhaustion, and then the anguish of socialising in a group with her assaulter. Tellingly, Manning Walker’s background is in documentaries, and in an early 2020 interview she describes her dream gig as being the DP on a “gritty” Ken Loach movie – here, instead of grit, it’s broken beer bottles and sweat so visceral it practically drips off the screen. There’s poignancy to how the film concludes not with an ostentatious set-piece or an explanatory monologue, but Tara quietly demonstrating spark and determination via a facial reaction. Tara’s behaviour is so subtle, her frenemy Skye misses it entirely.

“We see a lot of life sucked out of Tara,” says McKenna-Bruce. “But we get a glimpse of her, right at the end, being her again, because she’s going to be OK. She’s opening up to Em. I think that shows that talking about these things is how we begin to heal from them.”

How to Have Sex opens in cinemas on November 3. Listen to an exclusive mix from James Jacob, who scored and directed the music for the film above