If you’re going to enjoy John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties as much as I did, I think you have to have a certain tolerance for corniness. There’s something especially romanticized and goofy (though occasionally self-aware) about Mitchell’s rose-colored view of England’s punk scene at its birth. The way in which the film handles the idea of punk as revolutionary in a specifically full-throated kind of way — one that doesn’t quite jive with how the world turned out four decades later — can be tricky. Not to mention this movie asks you to accept (an especially fun) Nicole Kidman as some sort of punk maven. There’s a naivety and a certain pastiche here that I can see some audiences having trouble getting beyond, which is a shame since buried beneath these layers is the most human and humane film I’ve seen this year.
Based on a short story by fantasy stalwart Neil Gaiman, the movie takes place right at the explosion of punk, focusing mainly on Enn (Alex Sharp) and his best friends John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (Abraham Lewis), three ancillary hangers-on to their local low-rent punk scene. After a show, they end up at a strange party peopled by strangers in colorful vinyl costumes who all turn out to be visiting aliens there to basically sightsee. It’s there that the terminally awkward Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning), who, already dissolute and feeling bored with her lot in life, leaves with Enn to learn how to truly live.
What works is that, within the context of the film, there’s a genuineness to Zan’s search for meaning, life and love. There’s a hopefulness, an openness and an acceptance toward how difficult simply living is that makes Mitchell’s film work. As I mentioned, this is a wholly romanticized ideal of life’s potential, one that punk had at the beginning and a sense that has run throughout Mitchell’s filmography. It’s an especially playful film, too, as the tangential sci-fi elements of the movie allow Mitchell to indulge in his more playful inclinations as a filmmaker, feeling very much in tune with things like the abstractness of the ending of his Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001).
And this is a good thing, since How to Talk to Girls shares all of Hedwig‘s strongest features (while never quite matching its overall energy). The soundtrack is spot-on, the songs Mitchell and company have written for the film are excellent and the film’s exploration of sexuality and gender is its most fascinating aspect.
Even though Enn and Zan’s romance takes up the bulk of the film, the most compelling and moving parts of the movie are the subplot involving Vic’s confusion over his sexuality (after encountering a sort of androgynous alien) and his eventual epiphanies in regard to this are handled exquisitely. Despite that dreaded warning that this film’s “not for everyone,” what remains is a movie that’s fun and touching, something that feels like a rarity these days. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.