‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ Movie Review: A Messy But Brilliant Genre Mixer

Elle Fanning and Alex Sharp in How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)

This post first appeared on TV Movie Fix.

From one of the most widely-acclaimed indie movie powerhouses comes A24’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a convoluted piece of cinema that’s undoubtedly going to make viewers think about whether or not they’ve just been in a weird pink acid trip. From the complex mind of John Cameron Mitchell, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is an odd take on the sci-fi, comedy, and love story genre of storytelling that nonetheless makes for a quality indie movie. Partner these with the overbearing punk aesthetics, the movie succeeds at establishing a convincing production design albeit containing a film that’s an “acquired taste” for the casual moviegoer.

The film follows the story of young punk wannabe Enn (Alex Sharp) as he explores his city’s underground punk sub-culture with his friends. Somewhere along the way, Enn and his friends stumble into an odd gathering of various sexual proportions—something that even the punk lifestyle deems way over the line. In it, Enn comes across Zan (Elle Fanning), who turns out to be a member of an alien species who roam the galaxy to “consume” culture. The members of the gathering comprise the six different species, and Enn happens to fall in love with Zan. It’s a hopeful premise, especially with How to Talk to Girls at Parties based on Neil Gaiman’s 2006 short story of the same name.

But this is where the film goes a bit off the rails—in a good way. The punk culture is the central tapestry of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and it establishes a unique story of teenage love and subtle comedy. The movie also stars Nicole Kidman, who plays punk music organizer, Queen Boadicea. It’s honestly one of Kidman’s underwhelming outings in an indie film (her stint in The Killing of a Sacred Deer arguably one of the best), but her punk persona ruminates through her performance. It’s not exactly a good character, but then again it also works with Mitchell’s chosen aesthetic. Alex Sharp and Elle Fanning have weird chemistry going on, but it also oddly fits well into the narrative of How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Sharp portrays a convincing loser punk kid who ultimately gets the girl. There’s also the typical stereotypes of a cool nerd punk kid—appreciates that period’s obscure bands, writes well, and also happens to be a great comic book artist. Fanning does a great job of giving life to Zan, the alien who acts as one of the driving forces of the film. Her clueless demeanor and wonder-filled mindset make for a compelling alien character whose only aim is to consume—but later led to break free from the confines of her society, therefore embracing anticonformity and fighting the system.

Now, it’s important to note that How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a fusion of comedy, sci-fi, and romance. It could have worked solidly, if not for the various sub-themes thrown into the mix. The film offers a tinge of socio-political elements in its portrayal of the punk revolution of the 80’s. It also makes it stray far from the punks’ anarchist way of thinking, and instead focuses on the abolishment of flawed social constructs and seizure of control from the powers that be. The sexual innuendos are surprisingly dialed down a bit, as one would think, based on the trailer, that How to Talk to Girls at Parties is just another sex-driven plotline. True, the sexual themes are prevalent, but nothing that could remove the awe of its tasteful conundrum of a story. However, there are numerous times that the political substance feels forced, like how one would try to overanalyze trivial things to stay relevant.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties succeeds at establishing itself as a deviant piece of cinema that makes for a great viewing experience. The cinematography Frank G. DeMarco is superbly executed in a way that echoes the old punk music videos of the 80’s. If you grew up dabbling in the subculture, then the movie will surely hit you with massive waves of nostalgia, especially the running shots and concert scenes. The fleshing out of every scene with the distinct way of showing the film’s aesthetic worked very well, and the impressive production design of the alien gathering home shone through. Although set in the 80’s, the sequences involving the gathering home seemed like a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (minus the creeps, of course). It’s hard to peel one’s eyes off these scenes as it was so imaginative, and I think it gives justice to Gaiman’s vision for the short story.

Another impressive sequence one should watch out for is Zan and Enn’s concert moshpit scene. It almost feels as if your eyes are being ripped apart and transported to a world full of trippy sounds and colors, as what Mitchell would have intended. It’s a key moment in How to Talk to Girls at Parties, one that would prompt the film’s emotional side of the story.

With all the various praises one could say about How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ cinematography and camera work, it’s that story that suffers a small blow. Written by Mitchell and Philippa Goslett, the movie’s dialogue intentions don’t exactly mirror the aesthetic. It’s a coherent story, and arguably a good-enough short story adaptation, but it lacks a bit of flare and leans more on the fanfare. It would have worked better had the writing focus on the development of Enn and Zan’s relationship, making the ending carry more weight than it did. And with the additional sub-plots and themes of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, it makes Gaiman’s story a bit complicated. As mentioned earlier, it’s a conundrum of all sorts, but it doesn’t fall short as a movie that rises above expectations.

‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ Overall Verdict

How to Talk to Girls at Parties, despite its notable characteristics, is an over-interpretation of Gaiman’s story that weirdly blends well with Mitchell’s creative intentions. Though most of the time, techniques like these are a hit or miss, it successfully tells a compelling story of an other-worldly love that aims to break the rules. It’s not A24’s best, but it’s a nice cinematic piece that could very much become a cult movie in its own right (even a Criterion consideration, if I’m not pushing it too much). The best thing about How to Talk to Girls at Parties is that it establishes a flat sense of humor at first, but ultimately builds up one’s emotions. The film ends in a surprisingly touching manner, and once the credits roll, you’ll ask yourself why the hell you didn’t pick the movie up sooner—after wiping away those misty eyes and that satisfied smile.

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