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!
Just before you give up on the movie completely, the gang finds their way into a strange cult party where everyone dresses like the “Gutter Balls” dream sequence from The Big Lebowski. That’s where Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning), a real-life alien of some sort in a latex yellow dress who sees in Enn the chance to escape the stifling conformity of her space tribe and experience Earth like the locals. She asks Enn about punk and starts to cut away her space suit with scissors. “Now that’s punk!” he blurts.
“Will you show me the punk?” Zan asks.
Again, obnoxious. But there’s also something immensely appealing about the way Fanning plays Zan, this alien joyriding in a human body. With her enormous eyes and swan-like neck, she’s sort of the ingenue’s ingenue, and the role of an old soul alien experiencing Earth fun for the first time fits her like a glove. She and Zan are both starving for genuine experience, which is why they connect, a nice comment on both youth and young love. Sharp also puts all of his Tony award-winning talent to work, walking a tightrope between genuinely felt youthful attraction and dumb camp lines about punk.
Where the film oversells punk, it accurately sells young love. The same way Eternal Sunshine (one of my all-time favorites) uses the fantastic as a way to convey the feeling of a doomed relationship, HTTTGAP uses its loopy sci-fi story to convey what it feels like to believe that you’ve finally found your person. It’s a campy, dramatic life event that perfectly suits Mitchell’s theatrical style.
The film hums along nicely when it’s working in that vein, in scenes between Zan and her “tribe,” (who desperately want her to be a good girl and conform!) and between Zan and Enn’s divorced and equally lovelorn mum, a plotline with a sweetness that can’t be faked. Though the film occasionally does still revert to the kitschfest about punk, such as the scene in which Kidman’s Bodicea gives Zan a punk makeover and tries to turn her into a punk singer in a mega-cringe onstage duet. When Zan’s aliens show up, Kidman sneers inanities at them, like “sex is over. It’s time to evolve or die.”
A big “no thanks” on whatever movie that scene was supposed to fit. And to Nicole Kidman in a Souxsie and the Banshees get up in general (I think if you can look at this promo image and not roll your eyes you are the target audience).
If you can see past the frosting and skittles though, there’s a sweet little love story in here. It’s a film that’s paradoxically both intensely obnoxious and intensely charming, which is also true of young love in general.