Loud, ramshackle and far to eager to impress, punk meets aliens picture How to Talk to Girls at Parties is like every bad gig you’ve ever been to in a small venue in which a band attempts to poorly regurgitate a bunch of cliched ideas and postures. Oh, and in the spirit of bad punk bands, How to Talk to Girls at Parties dresses all this up in some sort of very poorly miscalculated attempt at edginess.
Prior to the film playing in Cannes, the stars walked up the red carpet and carefully posed for the many assembled paparazzi whilst sticking two fingers up. That seems to be a rather perfect distillation of how edgy and punk How to Talk to Girls at Parties actually is. At one point the film’s alien supporting character Zan (Elle Fanning) attempts to understand what punk is and the lead, Enn (Alex Sharp), cuts a little off the bottom of Zan’s outfit. That’s punk he declares. A sentiment the film repeats again and again and again. Perhaps Philippa Goslett, who adapted the screenplay with director John Cameron Mitchell from a Neil Gaiman short story, is attempting to point out the absurdity of the characters punk obsession by having them constantly shrieking about how punk they are, but it mostly comes across as just very wearisome posturing.
This posturing is all the more hard to take for an almost two hour running time when the actors involved all just look like their playing dress up, invited to a punk themed fancy dress party. Sandy Powell is, rightly, a well respected costume designer and whilst there are a few reasonably striking outfits to be found amongst the aliens, there is also a lot that looks like it was taken right out of a cheaply made eighties Doctor Who episode. This goes for the set design, lighting and particularly the distractingly bad camerawork, which often finds John Cameron Mitchell finding possibly the worst place to put the camera and then making sure that the lighting ensues that everything also looks as cheap and drab as possible.
The film is set in Croydon in the seventies, so one wouldn’t expect it to look like a Vincente Minnelli musical, but it’s not a problem of mood, time and place setting that is the issue, it’s that everything is so loosely and poorly thought out and stitched together. But the actors sure look like they’re having a lot of fun. Nicole Kidman in particular as Boadicea – a punk matriarch who has a wacky accent and an equally wacky and grating amount of rather silly dialogue.
Sharp is spirited in the lead role and certainly giving it his best shot but the sub-par dialogue doesn’t do a lot to help him out and whilst Fanning is actually pretty good as the naive Zan slowly learning about Earth, it’s a doe-eyed sort of passive role that directors seem far too keen on casting her in. It’s also a role that is somewhat questionable in the way in which it gives her so little real agency and makes her constantly subservient to Enn narratively. So much for a subversive punk attitude and the pro-women speechifying by Nicole Kidman’s character.
Destined to no doubt be championed by some as some sort of cult classic, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is in part so tiresome to watch because Mitchell and co. seem so desperate for it to be a cult classic. The cringeworthyness of the whole endeavour reaches its absolute pinnacle in the film’s bizarre epilogue in which the main character is styled to look like Neil Gaiman – a sandman sticker is also seen on the wall – and we are left with a bizarrely unearned emotional payoff. The Gaiman styling is an inside joke, of course, in a film that seems so full of excuses for the cast and crew to have fun. If only some of that energy and fun actually ended up on the screen.