The combination of British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and outrageous American queer filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell might seem like an odd one, but so much about ‘How To Talk To Girls At Parties’ is about the potential of odd combinations. Adapted and directed by Mitchell from Gaiman’s short story, it's both conventional and fiercely individualistic - this is one of those strange gems that defies accurate description almost wantonly, one that doesn’t really mind if you’re on for the ride or not, but it’s going wherever the hell it wants to go and it’s up to you if you jump on board.
Set in 1977 in the British town of Croydon, the film follows the exploits of punk kid Enn (Alex Sharp, Netflix's 'To The Bone') and his mates John (Ethan Lawrence, TV's 'Bad Education') and Vic (newcomer A.J. Lewis), who think they’re going to an afterparty run by punk band manager/artist Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman, 'The Killing Of A Sacred Deer', ‘The Beguiled’) but end up in a house with what they think is some American religious cult but is actually a number of alien species hiding and recuperating on earth. Enn falls for Zan (Elle Fanning, 'Mary Shelley', ‘The Neon Demon’), an inquisitive alien girl (though he doesn’t know she’s an alien) who leaves with Enn to go and see the world and learn about "The Punk". She only has 48 hours though before The Exit and The Eating, and her absence is sending the parent-teachers of these alien species into a tizzy.
If this sounds like the most convoluted plot you’ve ever heard, you’d be surprised at how easily and logically each incongruous twist and turn of the film makes absolute sense in the actuality of it. The fact is, ‘How To Talk To Girls At Parties’ is almost impossible to reduce to a pithy synopsis, and to do so reduces its strange, messy charm. After the control he exhibited in ‘Rabbit Hole’ (2010), this film sees Mitchell return to his underground instinctual roots. It’s little wonder he connected to this story about punk kids in 70s Britain, because his approach to storytelling has always been anarchic and unconventional, and in many ways this feels like a strange companion piece to his beloved ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001). He and co-writer Phillipa Goslett craft a screenplay that just seems to hit all the necessary narrative beats, and Mitchell fills the gaps with an endless cavalcade of strange and bizarre. The film handles the punk stuff comfortably, but once it gets to the aliens that it finds its feet and really starts to play, never stopping to explain itself at all and expecting you to keep up, like Alice following the various characters in Wonderland. The whole thing is a total mess, but much like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975) (which is honestly the closest thing you can possibly equate it to), it’s a charming, loveable mess, making the slap-dash cinematography, the frantic editing and the nonsensical extended fantasy sequences far more enjoyable than they would have been from any other filmmaker. Just like its punk protagonist, this film doesn’t give a fuck for the rules, and while it could have been obnoxious watching a bunch of people running around on screen having fun and fucking shit up, the film extends its hand and invites you to join it, a generous and ultimately integral act.
The whole thing is a total mess, but... it’s a charming, loveable mess, making the slap-dash cinematography, the frantic editing and the non-sensical extended fantasy sequences far more enjoyable than they would have been from any other filmmaker.
Mitchell really does assemble the most ridiculous cast, all of whom are willing to do whatever the hell he (or they) want. Alex Sharp has the hardest job as Enn, having to be the grounded centre of the film, but he does so with a wonderful integrity and presence. Elle Fanning is an absolute corker, continuing to prove herself one of the best actors of her generation, this time demonstrating how incredibly funny and silly she can be (watching Elle Fanning vomit into someone else's mouth is something I didn’t realise I needed to see in my life until it was actually happening, and I am so glad I’ve now seen it).
The whole ensemble is terrific, including Matt Lucas and Joanna Scanlan, but Nicole Kidman and Ruth Wilson pretty much steal the film. After a year of restrained performances, Kidman sticks out her tongue, teases her hair and goes for broke as Boadicea, absolutely iconic in how much she does not give a shit what you think of her or whether she’s actually any good. She looks like Bowie in ‘Labyrinth’, talks like your British mum and runs and screams across the screen like a band member in KISS, and I loved every second of her. And then there’s Ruth Wilson as one of the parent-teachers, who sits quietly in the background before stealing the film in its final act with one of the funniest existential breakdowns you’ll ever see, making you realise how much you’ve missed seeing Ruth Wilson on screen.
Is ‘How To Talk To Girls At Parties’ a great film? Not really. Is it trying to be? Not at all. Does it matter? Not in the slightest. It’s such a barmy, bat-shit blast of a film that its many flaws and inconsistencies can’t rob it of its natural and infectious charm. It’s a sweet romance about young love wrapped in punk philosophy and 70s sci-fi psychedelia, crafted by probably the only filmmaker who could actually pull it off. It’s so great to see John Cameron Mitchell behind the camera again, and seeing this brilliant cast letting their hair down and having such a great time. Whether you enjoy the trip or not is up to your tastes, but I’m glad I jumped on board for this one.