How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a deliciously bizarre and refreshingly unique experience that not only manages to successfully meld two completely opposite tones—punk and whimsy—but to wrap them up into an exhilarating narrative that infuses a familiar sci-fi/comedy/romance structure with a host of surprises that even the most hardened genre scholar will appreciate. John Cameron Mitchell’s film is one of those rare creations of such uniqueness and unburdened creativity that I almost feel as if I’m doing it a disservice by describing it to you.
Making a film that’s truly abrasive about its non-conformity yet adorable about its non-ironically detached embrace of human potential is lightning in a bottle. Any filmmaker who manages to capture that more than once is a downright physical anomaly. Yet that’s exactly what Mitchell has done. His directorial debut, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, couldn’t give two fucks about whether or not its audience embraced its quirk overload, and in many ways that’s what turned it into a profoundly relatable human story. After dabbling in heavy and grounded dramas with Shortbus and Rabbit Hole, Mitchell returns to his own brand of musical comedy, creating one of the most attractive and exuberant genre mash-ups of recent years.
Written by Mitchell and Philippa Goslett and adapted from Neil Gaiman’s short story, How to Talk to Girls at Parties spends a major chunk of the first act as a slice-of-life period dramedy about the punk scene in 1977’s Croydon—a fairly bland working class suburb of London, crammed with blocky and gray housing projects—as told through the eyes of three punk teenagers trying desperately to get laid. Such is the realism of the period’s punk scene and appealing the chemistry between the three friends that I would have been totally fine watching a whole neo-realistic movie about them screwing around during a random weekend.
The gang’s leader, Enn (Alex Sharp), is an introverted romantic with a hardened wannabe punk exterior. After striking out at the local punk dive, Enn drags his two best buds, John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (Abraham Lewis), to a mysterious house party that can only be described as an unholy marriage between tight leather gimp-based BDSM performance art and a new age hippie cult. While John embraces the lunacy and Vic receives a literally out-of-this-world experience that scrambles his confused sexual identity even further, Enn strikes an immediate connection with Zan (Elle Fanning), an odd girl who seems to be uber-excited about experiencing life through Enn’s eyes for some reason. Since Zan represents the only female form that acknowledges Enn’s existence, Enn takes her under his wing and teaches her the “true meaning” of punk. As an unexpected romance develops between Enn and Zan, Enn has to find the courage to stand against the weird cult that controls Zan’s life, especially as he finds out the frightening truth behind them.
The overall story beats are those we’ve seen before, but the manner by which they’re executed is downright wonderful. Each step of the way, I had no idea where the narrative was headed next. Plenty of sci-fi or fantasy properties center on a non-human protagonist yearning to break free of their hive mind culture to discover the human experience, but though Zan is a version of this trope, her character is a refreshing iteration of it. Zan immediately embraces punk, but also opens up Enn’s eyes to how such a narcissistic and careless existence might eventually hurt the ones you love.
As the surface narrative becomes crazier and more unhinged, Mitchell stays focused on the film’s many astute themes, including what it truly means to be a parent. Do we, as parents, only want our offspring to copy us, or are we actually willing to let them become their own individuals? As for the ways an otherwise goofball sci-fi/comedy tackles such deep material, you’re best off seeing for yourself. Yet the true glue that holds this glorious insanity together is the airtight chemistry between Sharp and Fanning. If you still don’t have an old-fashioned movie star crush on Elle Fanning, this should finally seal the deal. Her effortless charm, charisma, grace and sense of humor are all on display here, as Mitchell knows exactly how to utilize her strengths as an actor. With a wall-to-wall period punk soundtrack and a delightfully psychedelic visual aesthetic, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is catnip for the oddball film buff yearning for a truly unusual experience.
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Writer: Philippa Goslett, John Cameron Mitchell
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alex Sharp, Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson, Matt Lucas, Joanna Scanlan, Ethan Lawrence, Abraham Lewis
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.