Teenagers have a knack for standing around, waiting for something, anything to happen. It doesn’t matter the era; it doesn’t matter if Johnny Rotten played your neighborhood punk club last weekend and was crowned an icon the next. How To Talk To Girls At Parties tells us that the kids in the crowd are still just waiting for their own lives to change.
That’s the fairly universal premise at the core of a movie with multiple niches and genres bleeding into each other. It’s a period punk story on one side and an abstract, moral conundrum about alien invasion on the other. In the new film from John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), those forces mingle and create something quite specific if not totally new: a dash of Almost Famous, a lo-fi Moulin Rouge patina, an inverted riff on Earth Girls Are Easy.
Enn, Vic and John are three South London punks in 1977 just looking for an after-party where they can peddle their zine, knock back some cheap beers and meet girls. Enn (Alex Sharp) is the sensitive one, unlucky in puppy love and ready to have his worldview shifted. In search of that party, the boys mistakenly enter a house of seemingly endless halls and rooms. It’s occupied by dozens of “people” dressed in six distinct, brightly colored and coordinated uniforms. They’re dancing hypnotically, singing in a pitch usually reserved for porpoises, and discussing how best to infiltrate human society before they “exit” these bodies and this earth in a matter of a couple days.
In combing through the house, Enn encounters Zan (Elle Fanning), a member of this cult’s yellow-clad sect, which prides itself on individuality, but not so much that it doesn’t forbid her from fully experiencing what it is to be human. Zan’s not buying the limitations, so she quickly flees home with Enn on a whirlwind tour of his sleepy, industrial borough of Croydon.
While we’ve seen their instant and zany lovebird dynamic countless times before, Zan and Enn carry it off with supreme innocence and a terrific physical performance from Fanning. For one thing, there’s no innuendo around sex. Zan is trying to learn human behavior, right now and without pretense. Thus, what would be a charged make out ends in her lapping at Enn’s face like a greyhound. Then, she slouches away in pure, thoughtless joy. And what’s better, the audience follows her. We’re not locked into Enn’s need to become a completed young man, and the movie mostly circumvents the manic-pixie-dream-girl pothole as a result.
Zan and Enn’s chemistry builds into an improvised duet that marks the peak of the film’s spectacle, its romance and its fluency with punk music as honest, childlike expression. There’s a good reason for that last element. Neil Gaiman, the renowned author of the short story on which the movie is based, was a 17-year-old English boy himself in 1977 and has inspired a movie that knows punk is at its cathartic best when it’s naked and unrehearsed, themes that ought to resonate with all but the most cynical of punks.
The critical shortcomings of How To Talk To Girls At Parties come about more when its aliens and punks are not in enthusiastic harmony. At a certain, all-too-late point, the narrative scale tips toward the unintelligible rules of the space cult, and we spend 20 to 30 minutes in a world of inner-sanctum biology and politics that’s reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann as seen through cable access. Plus, this drudgery is carried out by a score of confused actors — Ruth Wilson and Tom Brookie chief among them — who seem like they’ve been told to play bureaucratic and stoned at the same time. Granted, there’s an allegory here for Zan resisting the status quo of her own world and for children realizing their parents always have their reasons, but there’s no need for it to be so bloody dense. That’s the Gaiman proving itself hard to adapt without rejecting certain pieces that Cameron Mitchell simply doesn’t want to.
A few of the early reviews have singled How To Talk out as a possible cult favorite (no pun intended) in the years to come, and that does seem possible. You’ve got glam-rock Nicole Kidman having an absolute ball, vamping about as the club owner Queen Boadicea. You’ve got the potential for 17-year-old hipsters playing Zan and Enn’s “Eat Me Alive” on Spotify to their hearts’ content. You’ve got rising star Elle Fanning continuing a tremendous and diverse run of acting that includes The Neon Demon, The Beguiled, and 20th Century Women in just last two years.
The case against it is that the movie is just too labored and strange in key moments. Maybe in three years, it’ll be Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. On first blush, it just feels more like Circ du Soleil with a mohawk and a heart.