May 22-- Using a slip of a short story by Neil Gaiman, writer/director John Cameron Mitchell has whipped up "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," a deeply weird gender-queer alien cult environmentalism punk movie that's deeply indebted to the philosophy of yoga. From Mitchell, we wouldn't expect anything less.
Working with co-writer Philippa Goslett, Mitchell has taken Gaiman's story about a pair of South London teenage punks in 1977 Croydon who stumble upon a party filled with alien babes, and infused it with the themes that have always permeated his work-sexuality, creation, connection, identity and tribe, all rolled into one chaotic, beautiful jumble that just might make you question your own deeply held beliefs. The film is an apt counterpart to Mitchell's debut, the musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," in which he starred as a German transgender punk singer crooning about the origin of love.
Mitchell's work has always sought to blow up traditional ideas about sex and gender, which goes hand in hand with the punk ethos. Aliens allow for possibilities of self-expression that we haven't yet seen on this planet. Yet, he uses a conventional story as the spine of this tale: boy meets girl, girl runs away from alien cannibal cult to follow the siren call of punk music. And all this talk of overconsumption and eating the young? It's not all that far off from societies that we know, and it rings especially true to the silver-haired doyenne of the local punk scene, Boadicea (Nicole Kidman). She's seen and heard this all before.
Elle Fanning plays Zan, the alien girl who runs away with the heart of Enn (Alex Sharp), the small-town punk who stumbles into the temporary domicile of her people with his friends looking for an after-party. What they find there, among these color-coded tribes of latex-clad weirdos, will change them all forever.
There's much to delight the senses in "How to Talk to Girls at Parties." The colorful alien tribes perform intoxicatingly strange avant-garde modern dance. The safety-pinned punks thrash and spit to the energetic tunes of local band the Dyschords. But the film, while it introduces much deeper ideas, rooted in the science of the chakra system, still remains very much on the surface. It doesn't penetrate the soul the way "Hedwig" did. Perhaps it gets just a little too spacey and ungrounded. While diverting, this fairy tale is helium-balloon light. It never fully lands and misses the opportunity for a truly moving moment.
While Fanning and Sharp make for a charming pair, you can't help but notice that some of the tropes Mitchell uses as the bed for this story overtake the anarchic potential of this tale. Zan is the ultimate manic pixie dream girl, a literal alien who pushes the shy Enn outside of his comfort zone. She's thankfully a fully realized character on her own journey, but for all its wild style, the narrative follows traditional beats and archetypes.
It is wonderful to see Mitchell working this groove and these themes again, use music and performance art to express those feelings that can't be easily put into words. His perspective is singular and vital, radical, revolutionary, queer and the definition of punk.
'HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES'
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, Alex Sharp, Ruth Wilson, Matt Lucas, A.J. Lewis, Ethan Lawrence.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity.
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