Cast: Alex Sharp, Elle Fanning, Ruth Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Stephen Campbell Moore, Eloise Smyth, Matt Lucas, Ethan Lawrence, A.J. Lewis, Joanna Scanlan
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name by John Cameron Mitchell and Philippa Goslett, How to Talk to Girls at Parties aims to be a punk intergalactic love story, but as directed by Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Itch, Rabbit Hole), the film's evocation of the 1977 Croydon punk scene is purely cosmetic. Meanwhile, the love story is devoid of any emotional or dramatic stakes; reduced to two characters making googly eyes while romping around London in montage. Never mind this is a movie about a horde of alien visitors bent on lulling unsuspecting humans into their cultic mansion; How to Talk to Girls at Parties is depressingly earth-bound. In short, it's a spirited mess; never quite finding the right tone for all it's tangental ideas and themes. One thing is for sure, though. It's certainly not "punk."
The story begins with young Enn (Alex Sharp) running around town with his two buddies, John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (A.J. Lewis) doing things a lot of young kids do in punk movies; trashing stuff, spitting, cursing, and basically acting like royal assholes. Of course, they don't really care about the ethos of punk. Instead, adopting the fashion and slogans is simply a way to get laid, and one of the richest areas for prowling tail is the local underground music venue, overseen by Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), the aging punk with a platinum back-combed bob. Kidman's whole look is a rather shameless nod to David Bowie's wardrobe from Jim Henson's cult favorite Labyrinth, and sadly, Boadicea remains a lame archetype; relegating to bulging eyes, sneering, and representing little more than the depressed old guard. In any event, the boys eventually make their way to an afterparty at a mansion where, unbeknownst to them, a haven of chanting aliens are preparing for, well, something.
Once Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning), an alien with a thousand yard stare and habit of licking people's faces, he's instantly smitten. Despite the overtly creepy trappings of the mansion--the color scheme is straight out of A Clockwork Orange and the inhabitants are constantly performing strange dances and ceremonial mantras-- none of the boys seems to care as long as it leads to possible sex. Of course, that is until Vic gets cornered into some possible male/female anal probing, which sends him bolting out of the party in a state of panic. What follows is basically a situation where Zan must weigh out her fascination with human boy toy Enn and her colony's interplanetary designs. Romance occurs, not so much because it makes sense from a character stand point, but because the narrative dictates that romance must occur, and the film's second half devolves into incoherence where neither the state of the galaxy is at stake nor the character's emotions.
This is all too bad, since Mitchell shows flashes of style and Fanning in particular gives Zann more nuance than the character has any reason to elicit on paper. The problem is that culture clash love stories are rarely interesting, and even with the added novelty of 70's kitsch, it's all cosmetic vamping en route to a truly laughable finale where we are expected to care about aliens wrapped in British flags jumping from buildings (Brexit metaphor, anyone?) while our two planet-crossed lovers weep and moan. None of what transpires here, especially in the final third, has anything to do with the aesthetic of punk rock (Mitchell seems to be going for a glam meets camp angle anyhow), and what we are left with is a movie without a voice. How can you make a film about the punk scene and then relegate the actual music (much less what it stands for) to the fringes, save for a key Pere Ubu reference? This is probably because How to Talk to Girls at Parties is more or less what its title implies; a shallow reading of teenage awkwardness rather than a statement on loneliness, individuality, and anti-establishment rage wrapped in a sci-fi love story.