"I feel alive. I feel open."
There are certain films that excel in one area so brilliantly that you almost want to forgive them for the ways in which they are lacking. Such is the conundrum I find myself in when trying to review John Cameron-Mitchell’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’. Having first premiered at Cannes in 2017 the film has sat in purgatory for just over a full year before finally being available for wide viewing.
Young Enn (Alex Sharp) and his best friends stumble upon a bizarre and eccentric gathering of teenagers who are from another planet, visiting Earth to complete a mysterious rite of passage. That doesn't stop Enn from falling madly in love with Zan (Elle Fanning), a beautiful and rebellious alien who becomes fascinated with him. Together, they embark on a delirious adventure through the kinetic, punk rock world of 1970s London.
‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ has so much energy that it almost doesn’t know what to do with it all. There are so many intriguing ideas, emotional beats and narrative turns that the movie becomes weighed down by its own ambition. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find the film affecting at certain times but I’d also be lying if I said that makes up for the sheer level of irregular moods and styles within the film, as well as how it struggles to keep a hold of them all or develop them in any meaningful way.
To say that the film suffers from tonal dissonance is an understatement. Cameron-Mitchell tries to navigate a spectrum that goes from grounded kitchen sink realism to full on experimental science fiction and quite often the various points on this spectrum at which the film finds itself don’t meld well. It’s hard to know which of the film’s stakes are to be taken seriously or which are just stylistic tendencies, leading to a narrative that feels confused and muddled. By the time the third act rolled around I was still struggling to grapple with exactly what was at stake and what these characters were motivated by.
All of this doesn’t speak to a lack of effort though, because this movie really aims high on both a conceptual and thematic level. ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ raises any number of prevalent themes from generational gaps to political drives. But ultimately none of these themes feel earned or developed. They are raised when the characters directly talk about them but never integrated into the narrative in a way that allows them to evolve or for the discussion to be furthered. There are a lot of stylistic flourishes that don’t feel fully motivated either.
That being said the movie is still entertaining on the surface. Cameron-Mitchell injects the proceedings with a high amount of energy that allows the story to fly by even if the various turns it takes feel out of synch. There’s an undeniable charm to the story that feels like it could be more compelling if it were stripped down to its bare components. At its core ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ seems to be a movie about the human experience, which the film conveys brilliantly in scenes of small successes and failings.
There are also a number of great performances that make the movie standout. For better or worse this is the only film where you can see Nicole Kidman as a punk rocker facing off against Ruth Wilson as a surreal alien entity. Then there’s Alex Sharp who brings a wonderfully innocent charm to his role, whilst Elle Fanning’s excellent alienated outlook is the source for several comedic moments, as well as some genuinely poignant ones as well.
I also think any viewer can find a lot to admire in the production design of the film. The surreal interior design of the alien cult’s house and outfits is visually stimulating as well as service as a striking contrast to the grey slums of 1970s England in which the story begins. The cinematography also evokes a similar feel, bathing the new landscapes in a bright glow that helps instil the same sense of confusion and bewilderment from the audience which the characters must be feeling. But then it the film’s visual palette can easily revert back to the home town of its protagonist and make that environment feel alien through the eyes of the tourist experiencing them for the first time.
The problem though is that there is nothing to tie these conflicting styles together. The film escalates and descends in tone and style so rapidly that it’s almost hard to keep track of what the narrative is even aiming to achieve. The story of the same name on which ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ is based on is just 18 pages long, meaning that said story has been stretched into a feature length narrative and it honestly shows. There’s a number of half-baked ideas that feel relevant but rarely amount to anything more significant than flashy pulp.
Stylish and enjoyable, but never focussed enough to amount to anything more meaningful, ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ is a unique but somewhat unfulfilling experience.