Mia McKenna-Bruce had watched How to Have Sex just once before it screened at this year’s Cannes film festival. The first viewing had been in London: an intimate, cast-and-crew-only affair. Between marvelling at the visuals, score, edit, and cheering on the rest of the performances, she had little time to take in what was actually unfolding on screen.
McKenna-Bruce reflects, “Perhaps I was also too stunned to fully comprehend the situation. It wasn’t until the Cannes Film Festival in May that I truly reflected on Tara, my character’s, story. I cried my heart out. The depth of her journey and the subtleties of her experiences were portrayed in a way I never imagined possible. It was overwhelming.” The Cannes audience gave How to Have Sex an outstanding eight-minute standing ovation, leading it to win the prestigious Un Certain Regard award, often given to emerging filmmakers. This recognition is well-deserved. The film marks an impressive debut for writer-director Molly Manning Walker, and McKenna-Bruce’s performance displays incredible nuance.
In the movie, McKenna-Bruce, who is 26 years old, portrays one of three 16-year-old girls who go on a trip to Malia, the party capital of Crete, after their GCSE exams. What begins as an exciting adventure of teenage self-discovery gradually takes a dark turn when Tara, played by McKenna-Bruce, is pressured by her friends to lose her virginity. McKenna-Bruce explains, “The emotions at the beginning are very different from the end, but the change happens gradually. It’s intentionally difficult to discern what’s happening at times, as sexual assault can be disorienting.”
We will gather at a calm pub in Kent during lunchtime in the beginning of October. Only five months have gone by since Cannes, but for McKenna-Bruce, it seems like a long time. This is mostly due to the fact that she became a mother just five weeks ago. She appears composed in her black turtleneck and sunglasses perched on her head. “This? It’s all just a front,” she admits with a wave of her hand, before bursting into laughter. “The first few weeks were absolute chaos. Now I feel like I’m slowly regaining my humanity; the constant tears have stopped.”
McKenna-Bruce, known for her roles in The Witcher, Vampire Academy, and Netflix’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (where she played Mary Musgrove, the younger sister of Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot), sees this role as a potential turning point in her career. She has dedicated herself to her craft, starting from a young age when she attended dance school at two years old. In order to achieve success, McKenna-Bruce even adopted an American accent throughout most of her elementary school years, both at home and in the classroom.
“Why didn’t anyone stop me?” she laughs. “I was so fixated on Shirley Temple.”
At the age of eight, she had her first acting role in Billy Elliot the Musical on the West End, where she played a ballet student. She then went on to appear in EastEnders, portraying Jack Branning’s daughter who was paralyzed after being hit by a car. At the age of nine, she starred in The Fourth Kind as a blind girl who became blind after witnessing her father’s suicide. She notes that her character in the film had an American accent, which she had previously practiced. Shortly after this, she received an audition for the BBC’s Tracy Beaker series and spent a total of seven years on various spin-offs of the franchise.
She states that although it was targeted towards children, the show also tackled serious topics. Her character’s plot involved having a mother in an abusive relationship, with the overarching theme being about young individuals in the foster care system.
In terms of content, I believe it might be too intense for a child. “That’s just what I’ve always been interested in,” she responds. “I strive to share intricate narratives. It wasn’t until making How to Have Sex that I recognized the recurring theme.”
She expresses that, with her upcoming big opportunity, her feelings are a mix of happiness and sadness. She mentions that having a baby has changed her perspective on acting, as it is no longer the most important thing in her life. She also enjoys being able to leave the house and take a break. However, promoting the film while caring for a newborn requires a lot of planning and coordination. She shares that her sister is currently watching the baby in a nearby room while they discuss the film. There are more festivals lined up before the film’s official release, and she is determined to fully immerse herself in all of it, even if it means having to change a lot of diapers.
In December of 2020, McKenna-Bruce received an initial version of the script for How to Have Sex. As she read through it, she felt like she had been taken back ten years in time. “I have memories of going on these trips,” she recalls. “They were a big deal, almost like a coming-of-age experience. My trip was to Ibiza. The script was obviously written by someone young who understands it.” It delved into “more than just sex and consent, but also the intense pressures of that time in life; the challenges of growing up, being a girl, and maintaining friendships.”
The speaker explains that dealing with these types of situations is not something that comes naturally. It can be difficult to know how to discuss or address them. We are following Tara as she begins to question whether she actually enjoyed what happened and if she did not, how she can express that. There is a sense of things unraveling. This is Tara’s first time experiencing this and she is unsure if it is supposed to feel this way. She wonders if she did something wrong and if the responsibility falls on her. Without any prior experience or someone to seek advice from, it is challenging to determine what is normal. The speaker hopes that this film can serve as a point of reference for others in similar situations.
The movie was filmed in Malia for a duration of two months starting in September 2021. According to the director, there were still tourists on vacation at the beginning of filming, but by the time they wrapped up two months later, the area was deserted.
The party scenes were filmed in the first few weeks, and the nightclub sequences were expertly captured: the rush of adrenaline, disorientation, and euphoria; the pulsating, intense beats. “We were truly immersed in those clubs, dancing to the music. Sometimes, there were hundreds of people there: a crowd of individuals.” The actors may have refrained from drinking during night shoots, “but we were incredibly energetic and would spin around in circles multiple times before filming to create a sense of disorientation. It was a challenging experience to make this movie while others were out partying, including young women who were the same age as our characters.” However, the cast and crew managed to fit in some partying during their free time. Some might call it “method acting.”
McKenna-Bruce explains that portraying the aftermath of Tara’s experience was important in capturing the stillness and isolation she felt after the initial excitement. She believes that highlighting the devastation and muted emotions Tara went through was crucial in accurately depicting the reality of the situation. The film does not normalize the experience, but also avoids exaggeration. In fact, filming the post-assault scenes had a stronger impact on the male actors, who were not as familiar with these stories, compared to the female actors. It was a fascinating experience to see them realize the gravity of the situation as it unfolded.
Due to her previous significant acting roles, McKenna-Bruce fully comprehends the responsibility that comes with portraying characters like Tara. This was actually one of the reasons she was drawn to the role. She is determined to continue discussing the thought-provoking themes of the film even outside of the screen: “I cannot say I want to spark conversations and then not engage when given the opportunity.” Prior to its release, she has attended several screenings and was surprised to see that the film resonated with not just teenagers, but also with people her age and even older generations. Many of them, particularly older women, have shared their own experiences similar to those depicted in the film and have expressed that they had never fully processed their emotions or even realized the impact it had on them.
An older man at a screening became emotional, claiming he saw his younger self in one of the male characters. The team’s goal of creating a reflective space for viewers was achieved, as there are no portrayals of characters as monsters or victims. The story is simply told without labeling anyone as a villain.
In the upcoming week, McKenna-Bruce’s 16-year-old sister will watch the movie for the first time. I am curious to see her perspective because I have a specific message I want her to understand: do not be influenced by external pressures, your friends, or social media. You have the choice to not do anything you are not prepared for.
The film “How to Have Sex” will be released in theaters on November 3rd.