Set in the grim, grey, and graffiti-covered Croydon of 1977, punk wannabes Enn (Alex Sharp), Vic (A. J. Lewis), and John (Ethan Lawrence), talk their way into a party full of bizarrely dressed people, acting and dancing strangely. At first mistaking them for Americans, it eventually dawns on the teenage trio that they have actually stumbled upon a group of aliens visiting Earth. When Enn falls in love with the rebellious but naïve Earth-tourist Zan (Elle Fanning), their relationship threatens the integrity of the group, and ultimately leads to a full-on conflict between the punks and the aliens.
Based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, with a screenplay co-written by Mitchell, and Philippa Goslett, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is one of those movies that is somewhat difficult to classify. One could try British retro teen romantic comedy science-fiction (or arguably fantasy) with musical elements, but that still wouldn’t quite cover it. It’s certainly chaotic, visually as well as in terms of the story, and feels like something of an assault on the senses, albeit an enjoyable one. One could say that it’s Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque in terms of its vibe, but again that wouldn’t be entirely adequate. It’s strange and energetic, pulsing with life, straining at the leash, deliberately provocative, intentionally sweet.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is actually a surprisingly funny movie, in both blatant and more subtle ways, and in terms of dialogue, visuals, and situation. It also has more than a touch of the absurd to it. Its romantic aspects manage to be both sweetly sincere and occasionally sardonic, because love and sex can be playful, intense, challenging, or disgusting. The science-fiction elements of the movie are humorous, surreal, and stylised, and raise questions, as all good sci-fi should.
There are themes here of individuality versus conformity; ideas about blindly consuming or being consumed; questions of creation versus curation, that all fit in with the punk ethos of the era. Concepts such as being eaten alive by your parents or the society that you live in are made literal, as is the duality of freedom from/freedom to. The strangeness of being a teenager, with all the adaptations it requires, is explored through the mediums of punk and beings from another world.
Elle Fanning is appropriately charming as the manifestation that is Zan, although one might wonder whether the childlike alien as love interest could be problematic if scrutinised. One might also wonder, briefly, if Zan is a manic pixie dream girl, but it is clear that she has her own trajectory in splitting from her group and that Enn is at first merely a means for her rebelliousness. Alex Sharp is likeable as 17 year old Enn, pretty clueless himself, and trying to guide Zan along paths of safety. And then there’s Matt Lucas and Ruth Wilson as amusing aliens, and a lively performance from Nicole Kidman as punk Queen Boadicea.
The DVD extras are minimal: one deleted scene, and a range of cast and crew interviews, chopped up into questions and answers, some of which are rather insightful. I changed my mind about this movie over the course of its first 30 minutes. I thought, hearing the words ‘Neil Gaiman’ and ‘science-fiction’, that I was going to love it. And then it started, and it was spiky and the humour was painful, and there was an awkwardness about it that I wasn’t sure was entirely intentional. And then I found myself laughing in spite of my reservations, and growing to like the characters, until eventually I realised that I was really enjoying it.
It’s a strange fable, and definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s not heavy on plot. It’s chaotic and a little confusing. But it is trying very hard to do something different, and it has a gawky earnestness about it that makes one want to like it. I don’t know that it’s particularly memorable, and only time will tell whether it will become a cult classic. But it might just answer the question for you, of how to talk to girls at parties.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties lands on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download today, 3 September 2018.