There’s magic in the way we perceive a new romantic connection, that initial rush of mutual attraction that in some way feels like the universe has sent an alien down to Earth just for you. There’s also a full body cringe that happens any time a movie character attempts to explain the meaning of “punk.” Those two feelings compete in How To Talk To Girls At Parties, the badly named new film from director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story about an alien who meets a British punk. It’s mostly a sci-fi rom-com about young love, which is great, but occasionally also a jukebox musical about punk, which is… not.
Our protagonist is Henry, aka Enn, played by Alex Sharp, a punk rock-loving schoolboy with crunchy hair and copious jacket buttons living in 1977 London on the eve of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. That was the one where the Sex Pistols rented a barge to play “God Save The Queen” and crash the party, the obvious inspiration for the film’s setting. Obvious enough that when Enn and his two friends, wiry Vic (Abraham Lewis) — looking like the bleach-haired incarnation of Johnny Rotten — and portly John (Ethan Lawrence), crash Enn’s mom’s jubilee party to borrow money, and ride off sneering “God save the queen!” and giving the two-fingered salute, it elicits an almost crippling eye roll. And that’s before one of the friends adds “…the fascist regime!”
YEAH, MAN, WE’VE HEARD THE SONG.
They also ride off three to a bicycle, which seems like the epitome of something that campy actors pretend is great fun even though it would clearly be a nightmare. There’s an overarching tone of “being a punk was the coolest!” to the first part of How To Talk To Girls At Parties that is, needless to say, exhausting.
But, before you stop reading here and say “not for me!” (I know I would), it’s important to note that most of the bad in HTTTGAP is front loaded, and most of the good is toward the middle and end where it counts.
The gang head off on their happy bicycle punk rock joy ride, talking their way into a punk show in fashionably shitty Croydon (“I’ve heard Croydon is the sister city to Fresno!” John, blurts, and I will eventually track down every person in the theater who laughed at that apparent diss of my home region) to see Slap, the dress-wearing punk singer everyone loves (actor Martin Tomlinson, who also co-wrote the music). Slap and his band Dyschord blow the roof off, but Slap ruins his chance at a record deal by pretending to give the A&R guy a blow job, much to the chagrin of his Souxsie Soux-dressed manager played by Nicole Kidman, “Queen Bodicea.” He came expecting to be offended, but not that kind of offended! Wowee!