By her own humble estimation, Mia McKenna-Bruce has “a lot of energy as a person.” She brought that verve to the Netflix adaptation of Persuasion, where she talked circles around her costars as Mary Musgrove—the youngest of three sisters, the most self-involved and frankly the most entertaining. But her role in How to Have Sex—a down-to-earth, devastating drama that opens in U.S. theaters on February 2—called upon McKenna-Bruce to do something very different: withdraw into herself, almost completely. The movie takes place on a beach holiday in Crete, where teenaged Tara (McKenna-Bruce) starts out like a spitfire, partying with her two friends, hanging out with their neighbors at the raucous hotel, looking to hook up. Then one night she goes away with one of their new friends, just the two of them. She comes back in shock from their encounter, a shadow of herself.
Destined to be a turning point for McKenna-Bruce, How to Have Sex has been praised for its emotionally real look at consent in sex and the way trauma manifests. She gives a nuanced, quietly heartrending performance, part of the film’s lived-in authenticity: instead of a forced dramatic arc, a lot of the film consists of groups of vacationers hanging out.
“We’re living it out with Tara. There’s nothing that’s shoved in your face or where you’re being told what to feel. So all the emotions are your own,” McKenna-Bruce said in a video interview from the U.K, where she’s based. “We discover everything as Tara does, and you literally see her figure it out.”
This is a tough progression to embody on screen, but McKenna-Bruce, 26, has gravitated toward challenging material since early in her career. As a teenager, she was a regular on a British TV series about kids in foster care, The Story of Tracy Beaker. “Doing that show, we met a lot of children that were in care”—the British phrase for foster services—“and they would talk to us about how much the show helped them. More than anything, it’s getting to do stuff that matters to people.” She went on to a range of roles on TV and in film, including a spot on Vampire Academy and the requisite stint on EastEnders. But How to Have Sex has earned her breakthrough attention as never before—not to mention independent awards nominations.
“Molly’s writing was so natural and honest and conversational,” McKenna-Bruce said. Molly is Molly Manning Walker, directing her debut feature with How to Have Sex, after a short on a similar subject (Good Thanks, and You?). Walker had done workshops with the material before McKenna-Bruce came onto the project; scenes from the script were shared with girls to hear what they thought, and Walker and McKenna-Bruce went over the results in-depth. “A lot of young girls who were given the assault scenes from the film to read didn’t view them as assault. And a lot were trying to put the blame somewhere,” McKenna-Bruce recalled. “And people were feeling quite nervous to have these conservations around sex as well, which can be a problem. Then people can’t be honest about how they’re feeling.”
Tara’s friendships are a huge, and somewhere double-edged, part of the movie. Tara, Em (Enva Lewis), and Skye (Lara Peake) are eager to have fun and let loose, and they joke about who will have sex first. Skye keeps goading Tara to pursue Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), one of their happy-go-lucky new friends, who turns out to be utterly toxic. Skye’s tone-deaf, passive-aggressive attitude rang true for McKenna-Brue. “I think young people go through these friendships where you declare someone as your best friend, and therefore just take all this rubbish from them,” she said. “It jumped out to me when I first read it, because I definitely put up with a friendship for way longer than I should have just because I thought I had to.” Em eventually clues into Tara’s state of mind, but Tara’s rough journey is epitomized by the long, lonely walk she must take back one morning after a night with Paddy at the beach.
The response at screenings (from the film’s U.K. release and festivals like Cannes and Sundance) has been strong but, McKenna-Bruce put it, “bittersweet.” “Obviously it’s amazing to know that the film is resonating with so many people, but it’s also heartbreaking. You’d be at a hard push to speak to anyone after a viewing that hasn’t gone through their version of this.” But getting across characters with that immediacy and real connection was always the goal for McKenna-Bruce. “We’ve got to make these characters as real and human as possible, so that people can relate to them.”
McKenna-Bruce is currently working on “another really strong-female lead story.” She singled out Kate Winslet as an actor whose path she especially admires (“She comes across as so human in everything she does!”). But she knows How to Have Sex is right on time in her career. “I would have loved a film like this when I was younger,” she said. “I’ve got two younger sisters and I’d love for them to see this. They kind of have to if I’m in it!”