John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” takes all the wrong ingredients from its punk inspirations; the film is infantile, emotionally deficient, ill-disciplined and has an inflated sense of self-importance.
The year is 1977, South London. Enn (Alex Sharp) is a teenage punk who spends his Saturday nights at underground shows with his best mates, Vic (Abraham) and John (Ethan Lawrence). In their hopeless search for an after-party, ethereal music lures them towards a large derelict house full of colour-coded, latex-wearing, American-accented, human-looking aliens. A non-conformist member of the yellow group catches Enn’s eye: Elle Fanning’s Zan.
Desperate to get away from her “colony,” Zan begs Enn to escape with her and show her “the punk.” Over the next 48 hours, Zan meets Enn’s mom, rocks out with him at a show and Enn learns of the fate awaiting Zan at the end of this little cultural trip.
The metaphors are obvious: punk is a way of life, girls are alien enigmas and parental rules are bollocks, yadda yadda yadda. It’s the second of those that’s the most frustrating. The “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” type, as portrayed here, is regressive, infantile and really boneheadedly misjudged at this point in time.
Fanning is great and makes for a wonderful fish out of water alien, despite being burdened with easy pickings dialogue. But, I’m done seeing female characters defined and taught by young white men. The fact that Sharp is a doppelgänger for Gaiman just makes this weird patriarchal fantasy even more frustratingly indulgent. This film doesn’t learn its lesson and ultimately walks the plank with this autobiographical element in a laughable Chasing Amy knock-off coda.
Mitchell has more success with his punk visuals; fish eye lenses, aggressive colour work and brown-bricked backdrops are interesting and make Sheffield (a city in the North of England that doubles for London) look good. Plus, a couple of crane shots are pleasing and nicely juxtapose the grungy characters. The production design, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The sleek, skintight alien costumes are inventive and effective, but the handmade set decoration just feels cheap.
The logic and rules of this alien race aren’t clear, and Gaiman and Mitchell aren’t in any hurry to explain. Instead, they’re preoccupied with crude sex and gay fear jokes. Elsewhere, Nicole Kidman turns up as the punk Queen Boadicea. She’s fun, but her accent slips on occasion.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is spirited but doesn’t have anything new to say. And it has an embarrassing relationship with its female characters. The film undoubtedly captures something; it’s just nothing I have any desire to watch.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.