The only thing that becomes certain when watching director John Cameron Mitchell‘s How to Talk to Girls at Parties is that this will be an incredibly divisive film. As its reception at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival suggested, this was not a film that will easily please an audience nor is it one that accomplishes every one of its goals. Mitchell strives to create a film that is as punk as its characters would want, leading How to Talk to Girls at Parties to move to the beat of its own drum.
Set in Croydon, a suburb of London, the film depicts the arrival of six colonies of aliens into this decrepit suburb during the 1980s. Among the aliens is the young Zan (Elle Fanning). As the colonies arrive, host insane parties in their home, and mingle with the locals, they all plan to “exit” back to their original homeland where they will then eat their young. Alongside their arrival, youngsters such as Enn (Alex Sharp) embed themselves within the punk uprising of Britain, chasing away the sellouts, championing the true originals, and demanding the bloody, gory truth of the world from these screaming and eccentric heroes. Chief among them is Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), an A&R or manager of sorts for the punk movement, bringing acts to the forefront only to be burned by them once they sign with a major label. As this all goes on, Zan runs away from her colony to be with Enn after the pair meet almost coincidentally. In other words, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is absolute madness.
Mitchell never hides the originality of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, striking an abrasive note from the very onset as Enn rides around Croydon on his bike, plastering stickers around the town. As he does, Mitchell and editor Brian A. Kates use a rather interesting technique, appearing to show Enn in slow motion, while simultaneously speeding up that same shot on top of the slow motion. The end result is an incredibly disorienting sequence, one that the film would replicate when Enn and Zan, similarly, ride around town causing chaos. Yet, cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco has even more tricks up his sleeve. Many shots in the film wind up being from an incredibly uncomfortable angle, whether oblique, extreme low-angles, or constant high-angles. The commonality in all of these – and even in the film’s more conventional camera setups – is the prevalence of diagonal lines. Walls, stairs, weird art, buildings, and anything that are typically shown as being straight are captured from an angle.
Sometimes, they even wind up obscuring part or much of a shot, such as one sequence in which Enn first encounters the alien-occupied home and walks around. As he enters a room, the shot is first from an extreme oblique low-angle that cuts to a setup from behind a series of odd, hard to describe, art installations that wind up partially blocking the view of Enn. This visual array, coupled with the terrifically neon or incredibly dark/golden lighting, gives How to Talk to Girls at Parties a truly unique and striking style. Mitchell, Kates, and DeMarco wind up terrifically countering this style, however, when the film is set in the punk world. With intense close-ups and more upright shots, the sequences are intense but nowhere near as disorienting as the way the film appears whenever the aliens are involved. The film even manages to blend this together perfectly when Zan’s “parent-teacher” (who will eat her if all goes to plan) arrives to pull her away from Enn. In the hallway where they meet, the wall appears diagonally while even close-ups of Fanning appear somewhat off-center. However, when back inside the punk venue, everything is still insane but no longer off-kilter.
Coupled with the film’s absolutely insane narrative about these colonies and even its more trippy endeavors that find Enn and Zan literally being transported into another dimension as they sing, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is undoubtedly a unique work. It may echo with similarities to either punk-oriented films (24 Hour Party People especially) or even alien encounter films, but where Mitchell is able to take this Neil Gaiman short story is undoubtedly admirable. It is this originality that does help the film considerably, as it earns it some lee-way to misfire at times. However, the film’s more original elements are held back by dialogue that feels as though Mitchell is playing these aliens as more “fish out of water” who simply do not understand the Earth, thus they have the innocence and insanity of a child in an adult’s body. It is a bit too stiff and cliche in that regard, never as reckless and “punk” as it should be. Yet, when How to Talk to Girls at Parties discards with any attempt at cohesion, coherence, or plot, it excels greatly and it is this element that helps make it into a mild success. This is a unique experience to be sure, one that feels a bit experiential and absurd, but is always a good time with often great humor and laughs deriving from the film’s overall absurdity.
It is for this originality that the film becomes so hard to comprehend, especially when it comes to the acting. The dialogue may be a bit stilted – though it does sometimes work – but the performances are certainly all a little off. This can be good or bad depending on one’s perspective. In the lead role, Alex Sharp is definitely underwhelming. He is playing the relative straight man to the insanity that is unfolding, but seems a bit out of his element alongside the rest of this cast, almost seeming as though he is the alien in this group and not Fanning. Sharp is simply far too vanilla to be playing the romantic love interest of an alien. For her part, Elle Fanning is always a bit odd in films, largely due to her unique and almost breathy voice with somewhat muted emoting. Thus, she is perfect for the role of Zan. She captures the doe-eyed innocence of the character as she mingles amongst humans, and men, for the first time while capturing the character’s sincerity towards the romantic and emotional struggles that arise in the film. Amongst the rest of the cast, Nicole Kidman is certainly underutilized, never really getting the stage to herself all too often. However, her insane turn as Queen Boadicea is certainly a ton of fun with Kidman clearly hamming the role up considerably. For this, it is hard to not love Kidman in this film as she is a true burst of energy and eccentricity whenever on-screen.
While the film strikes a fun and always off-beat tone, How to Talk to Girls at Parties takes a perplexing turn in its final stretch. As Zan has run off from her colonies, it has thrown her world into disarray. Made up of six colonies that came from dying planets that had been killed by gluttonous inhabitants, these colonies have resolved to galaxy-trot a bit and then eat their young as a way of prolonging the species, all while being run by a god-like man who views himself as some kind of supreme being. Yet, though Zan is set to be eaten, she becomes pregnant by Enn meaning she can no longer be eaten, rather she will now be able to control her own colony in the role of “parent-teacher”. Even more pertinent, it gives her the power to be the deciding vote as her antics have created a schism amongst the current parent-teachers with three believing eating their young to now be wrong, while the other three view discarding with the ritual to be a slippery slope towards freedom. Thus, Mitchell runs into two problems. One, the film’s themes become far too on-the-nose as multiple characters turn into mouthpieces to satirize modern political issues or to criticize the colonies (and humanity) for destroying their planets via over-consumption. This is in line with Enn flat-out saying that he believes a virus will eventually save humanity (through some kind of plague, maybe?), but not only is this political element heavy-handed but it is also incredibly undercooked with Mitchell only returning to it intermittently via on-the-nose dialogue and plotting. This turn in the final third is certainly geared towards bringing the film’s political ideas to the forefront, but it never does so with any nuance.
The second problem the film runs into is a combination of cliche and sentimentality. Taking a page out of Steven Spielberg‘s book, Mitchell opts to give Zan an option of love with Enn or the possibility of saving her people from being eaten by their elders. Coupled with a sickly sweet epilogue, the final half-hour of the film where Zan is given that cliche dilemma or is given a colony that comes to represent “love” in the universe, How to Talk to Girls at Parties somewhat throws away its more original elements in favor of a sweet romantic note. It is charming to a degree and is not that major of a departure from the burgeoning romance of the rest of the film, but proves to be far too conventional and sentimental for a film that often tries to champion originality and nihilism.
As divisive a film as one can be, John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties is neither masterpiece nor disaster. Rather, it finds a home somewhat in between those two extremes. The end result is a film that has considerable issues, whether undercooked and heavy-handed themes, stilted dialogue, or too much sentimentality at the end, but it is also one that is unabashedly unique with great editing and cinematography, and a consistent ability to make a viewer laugh. Thus, this becomes a pure joy to watch even when one recognizes its aforementioned flaws. This is the kind of unique, daring, and ambitious work that should come around far more often, always being admirable in both success and in defeat. For that, How to Talk to Girls at Parties may not be the best film of 2018 but it may very well be one of the most memorable.