‘How to Have Sex’ Review: A Quietly Devastating Drama with Mia McKenna-Bruce

Mia McKenna-Bruce Gives a star-making performance in this quietly devastating drama. 

The first thirty minutes or so of Molly Manning Walker’s feature directorial debut, How to Have Sex, is highly disorienting. Walker zips through one scene after the next at a breakneck pace as she posits the story as a coming-of-age tale where a group of friends travel to Crete for a rite-of-passage holiday. In that group, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) aims to lose her virginity and almost immediately matches with Badger (Shaun Thomas), a young and charming boy who also has the hots for her. 

The two begin to connect during numerous parties, as Tara continuously advances towards him until she experiences disdain as he volunteers to go onstage for a sexual game with multiple strangers involved. The film cuts to the next day, where Tara is reportedly missing from her hotel room. Her two friends, Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake), think she’s in Badger’s room, but he swears she is not there, as he did not spend the night with her. 

How to Have Sex Movie Review with Mia McKenna-Bruce
Mia McKenna-Bruce in How to Have Sex. Image courtesy of MUBI.

How to Have Sex shifts from coming-of-age tale to quietly devastating drama

What is initially posited as a coming-of-age tale jarringly shifts to a quietly devastating drama as we immediately learn what happened: Tara has been raped by Badger’s best friend, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley), who made unwanted and highly inappropriate advances towards her during the evening, despite her multiple refusals, and takes advantage of her as they are alone in the beach. 

Walker does not show the rape, though we immediately know that it occurred through Tara’s facial expressions, as she tries to maintain composure throughout the trip with her best friends but doesn’t want to do anything else beyond staying in her room and sleeping. Something’s definitely wrong, but she does not want to alarm her friends and tell them what happened. The film then becomes something much more different than it was introduced, with a knockout of a breakout turn through McKenna-Bruce’s portrayal of Tara. 

What starts out as a fun, breezy, dynamic, vibrant, and [too] fast-paced comedy quickly turns into a nightmare as Tara grapples with the events that led to her rape. One such sequence sees her put on makeup as she begins to remember what happened – with quick cuts to the beach scene, as we see in greater — and more frightening – detail Paddy’s advances towards her. While the editing from Fin Oates can be jarring in its opening moments, once the pace deliberately slows down, it starts to get stomach-churning as Tara clearly knows what happened but feels afraid that, if she calls Paddy out, her friends will turn on her. 

Paddy fully knows this, so he consistently acts friendly towards Badger and Tara’s friends to gain trust should Tara speak out. With the most disturbing glare put in a movie this year, Bottomley’s portrayal of Paddy showcases an all-too-common type of behavior among men, who knowingly realize they are taking advantage of women as they are vulnerable but would rather pretend nothing major has happened to their friends so they take his side if she decides to call him out. It’s sick, and it’s even more terrifying once, in the film’s centerpiece sequence, Paddy lies down in bed with Tara, with her friends in another room, so he can rape her once more as she falls asleep. 

Mia McKenna-Bruce stands out in this drama

The best actors can convey a broad range of emotions through their eyes, where audiences can peer through into their minds and understand everything they’re going through. In that regard, McKenna-Bruce knows exactly what she’s doing, as her eyes represent total emptiness after her assault and slowly morph into distress as she begins to pick up the pieces. She tries to make a face and pretend everything is fine, but her facial and physical expressions say otherwise. Her performance slowly devastates you until the final scene at an airport releases the tension meticulously built in an incredibly cathartic way. 

There’s hope Tara’s life will improve after this event, and the film ends on a rather high note instead of a wallop of depression. It will be difficult for her, but she will hopefully overcome her troubles successfully. Many critics have said that How to Have Sex will be a conversation starter, but there’s no conversation to have about something that is still happening today – what needs to happen is action to prevent these events from happening in the first place. In the past few years, steps have been made in the right direction, but are they enough? How to Have Sex doesn’t think so, and neither will you after watching it. 

How to Have Sex is now streaming and playing in limited theaters. 

You can learn more about how to watch the movie by visiting MUBI. Have you watched How to Have Sex? Connect with us on X @MoviesWeTexted.

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