On punk rock, young love, human bodies, and the social idiosyncrasies of visiting alien civilizations
How to Talk to Girls at Parties A24
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Screenplay: Philippa Goslett and John Cameron Mitchell, based on the short story by Neil Gaiman
Starring: Alex Sharp, Elle Fanning, A.J. Lewis, Ethan Lawrence, Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson, Tom Brooke, Joanna Scanlan, Matt Lucas and Edward Petherbridge
Rated R / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
I wonder if How to Talk to Girls at Parties knows it's emo and not punk. I'm beginning to suspect it does. I'm beginning to believe that's why the movie might actually kinda work.
For the record, I'm not certain it even does work, but if it does, it does because it's not the movie its own characters would have written for themselves. No doubt their 1977 selves would be horrified to discover their story bends toward tender romance and soothing self-discovery. Perhaps by the time the film ends, in 1992, these guys would be able to better appreciate what it is, and what their lives were (and weren't).
Until then, however, punk is their lifeblood - or at the very least it's what adorns their walls, defines their dress, and (very vaguely) governs their attitudes. Their divorced, working-class parents just don't understand. They're awfully nice boys, really - Enn (Alex Sharp) and his two pals Vic (A.J. Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence). When they can get out of the house, they spend their nights at the friendly neighborhood punk club, not quite fitting in yet but longing to. The proprietor is Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), whose stage, scouting and mentorship have served as a launchpad for many a successful recording artist who proceeded to leave her (and her digs) behind, a trend she bemoans in private even as she carries on enthusiastically in her pursuit of new talent.
But the locale that changes these boys' lives is not that club, where they so fervently await acceptance, but a house in a nearby neighborhood where a far more interesting social ceremony is taking place. That its inhabitants are aliens, using human vessels, making their way through various planets and cultures, having touched down in south London for the final leg of their galactic tour, is a detail the boys can discover in time. For now, it just seems like an unusually colorful house party or an unusually kinky cult gathering. Or both. In any case, this is how Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning). He doesn't quite understand why she so quickly decides to run off with him - then again, you wouldn't really ask too many questions if you were a 16-year-old in that situation, would you - so I'll quickly sum up. The alien civilization making camp in Croydon is made up of various colonies, each with their own traditions. Zan's colony - led by Parent Teacher (or PT) Waldo (Tom Brooke) - are observers rather than participants. Look but don't touch. Gather information, learning everything, experience nothing. This frustrates Zan, and like many an endearing rebellious teen before her, she rejects those expectations and runs off to experience as much of life as possible in what limited time she has.
Other colonies - led by the likes of PT Stella (Ruth Wilson) and PT Wain (Matt Lucas), among others - all have their own proclivities and rules and traditions. Each one is even defined by its own color scheme. Collectively, though, they're all ostensibly in this thing together, and their time on Earth is designed to lead to one very specific purpose - one that would frankly horrify the humans (assuming anyone, aside from Enn and Friends, even knew they were in town) if they knew about it, and which Zan is trying to ignore or avoid for as long as she can.
The transition from the dark and quiet Croydon streets to the glowing latex fantasia inside that otherwise nondescript house nicely reflects the boys' gradual shift away from where they thought they were headed. Away from the abstraction of their cultural ideal and toward something more sentimental, playful, and ultimately (given where the events eventually lead them) more dangerous. Not that the film - directed by John Cameron Mitchell based on a short story by Neil Gaiman - does away with punk; on the contrary, in punk Enn and Zan find the very expression of their mad love - an impromptu on-stage number between the two (in front of an initially hostile crowd) that transforms into a cosmic hallucination. In Zan, Boadicea may even have her next great discovery. If only the interplanetary circumstances weren't destined to get in the way.
But back to that house, and the group of sexy alien tourists temporarily taking up residence inside it, and its uniquely charming brand of sci-fi kitsch. Mitchell's camera meanders and floats - in and out of rooms, between rotating sets of characters - and with his lenses distorting our surroundings, it begins to feel as if a Gilliam disciple has wandered through a living art installation inspired by Barbarella and Fantastic Planet by way of DIY Kubrick. During these scenes in particular, How to Talk also has a kinship with Mitchell's Shortbus, in their shared emphasis on human contact and community as a good in and of itself. Their intimacy, their unabashed enjoyment of the body - which, for Zan, is a new phenomenon altogether. "I like this body," she says, still discovering hers. "Is it a good one?"
Then she turns her attention to Enn. "I like yours." Sniffs. "Smells like butter." Licks. "Tastes like salt."
The young romance follows a common formula - especially for boy-meets-girl romances that predominantly take the boy's point-of-view. That she's not from this world - and therefore is more or less a blank slate for him - is a convenient pretext for said formula to play out: He gets to explain to her how the world (or at least his world) works, and teach her a bunch of stuff like what music to like and what bands to listen to. (If they had a bit more time together, they'd probably wind up at a bookstore and he could assign her a stack of books to read.) They meet-cute at a party, he rescues her from an awkward social situation, they spend the whole night talking. By the time Enn finally catches up with his mates again, he's already smitten, at which point the concern over the very distinct possibility that she belongs to a strange American cult becomes their primary topic of conversation and the inevitable approaching obstacle to their happily-ever-after. The rest of her kind do seem to be awfully anxious to get her back in the fold before it's (apparently) too late.
Fanning and Sharp share an easy physical warmth, and Enn and Zan make an endearing pair through all their half-understood exchanges and clumsy physical missteps. But the film has another matter much more prominently on its mind. The budding relationship is well and good, but How to Talk to Girls at Parties becomes more about parents and the relationships to not only their progeny but the entire generations they produce - values and traditions accepted or rebelled against. (In this sense, the aspects of Enn's home and neighborhood life we get glimpses of begin to seem underutilized.) Even the romance itself eventually boils down to a dispute over fulfilling or discontinuing longstanding ways of life. The nebulous sense of youthful unrest and unruly transgression that may have driven Enn, Vic and John to those underground clubs in the first place has, by the end, found a more purposeful application. It just happened to take an alien invasion to put their rebellious energy to good use.