How to Talk to Girls at Parties is nostalgic romp through industrial England during the early days of punk.
No, that’s not quite right — it’s a romance about two lovers from vastly different backgrounds.
Well, no, it’s a philosophical sci-fi movie about the nature of parenting and purity.
Well, it’s all of these things and none of these things, at least not in a way that’s satisfying. And that’s too bad, because the movie’s central mashup is intriguing: the movie is written (along with Philippa Goslett) and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, the mastermind behind the weird and earnest Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, and adapted from a short story by Neil Gaiman, creator of the weird and earnest Sandman and American Gods. These two artists share enough idiosyncratic DNA to suggest an interesting pairing, but How to Talk never finds a consistent tone to hold together.
The movie’s best parts work because of the chemistry between leads Alex Sharp and Elle Fanning. Sharp plays Enn, a latchkey kid trying unsuccessfully to fit into the local punk scene. Searching for an after-concert party, Enn and his two best mates — the aggressively horny Vic (Abraham Lewis) and the somewhat less aggressively horny John (Ethan Lawrence) — stumble upon an alien colony making a short exploratory visit on Earth. Each colonist belongs to a sect, and each sect has a specific duty to perform during their 48 hour lifespan, but Enn’s anarchic rhetoric inspires Zan (Fanning) to break free and make the most of her time.
To his credit, Sharp makes his character, who gets plenty of traits but not much development, surprisingly believable and Fanning brings the same ethereal quality that she did to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon, playing her character like David Bowie’s alien from The Man Who Fell to Earth in the body of a Midwestern suburban girl. They hold together the movie’s divergent parts in a way Mitchell can’t do with the rest of the film.
The movie particularly struggles with its portrayal of the aliens. One gets the sense that they have an intricately planned backstory — something about celestial forces that occasionally take the form of human “Parent Teachers” and adolescent “Children” to visit a planet until the former devours the latter. And it seems like they serve as a metaphor for experience or individuality or parenting or other big ideas, but How to Talk never articulates them well, and instead leaves the heavy lifting to the actors and their costumes. Left to their own devices, Ruth Wilson, Matt Lucas, and the others playing the Parent Teachers go for broad comedy, more like extras in a 90s SNL “Sprockets” skit than extraterrestrial forces. And while the neon colored costumes from Sandy Powell are interesting, something like vinyl fetish gear for Teletubbies, their goofiness clashes with the film’s occasional gritty feel.
There are definitely things to be enjoyed about How to Talk, particularly Nicole Kidman’s outsized performance as the Malcolm MacLauren-esque Queen Boadicea. And the punk rock songs are all great, including a cameo from Mitchell as a cross-dressing punk singer and a fantastically surreal duet by Sharp and Fanning. But they ultimately leave you wanting the clarity of vision Mitchell brought to all of his other films, instead of this attempt to mash those tones together.