How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
With such colorful roles under her belt, Elle Fanning has proven herself to be a performer whose career could span across decades—should she want it. In “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” she plays an alien named Zan currently in the body of a human in 1977 Croydon where punk rock is more than music, it is a way of life. She commands the role with such gusto, it is is near impossible not to look at her and stare at how she is in control of her entire being… even when the character, bizarre as she is, is apparently out of control. The story is strange and the plot quite obfuscated at times, but her star power anchors the material in such a way that it almost doesn’t matter what’s going on around her.
I wish I could say that the film were stronger because it contains many ideas worth exploring. Based on the short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman, it touches upon why it is important that punk exists, what punk means to those who consider themselves to be a part of its community, and what punk might appear to be based on outsiders looking in. In addition, there are subplots that function as metaphors: being in control of one’s body, sexual awakening, becoming embittered by the passing of time, finding belongingness… All potentially fascinating but not easy to explore and weave together, especially in a comedy.
John Cameron Mitchell is no stranger when it comes to relying on sheer energy to entertain his audience. It works in the marvelous “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the uproarious “Shortbus,” but the approach is not as effective here. This is because, with the exception of Fanning, the performers are not memorable. For instance, even Nicole Kidman, portraying a manager of a local punk pub, gets lost in the shuffle. Observe closely and notice that, when next to Fanning, it feels as though Kidman is acting rather than embodying the role of a woman who is angry after the bands she helped to get discovered had failed to give her credit or, worse, forgotten her. This character ought to have been utilized more effectively in order to humanize some of the more outlandish elements of the picture.
It excels with the visuals. Aside from the psychedelic faux-intermissions that lean toward cheap instead of hypnotic, I enjoyed, for example, the cheesy clothing of the aliens because the performers who wear them commit. Notice how during pulsating dances, the music, the lighting, and the awkward camera movements aid the clothes to make a statement. An experience is created; it really feels as though we are in a gathering of teenagers who happen to be from another planet. Compare these images to the punk rock gatherings underground. At first glance, they may look worlds apart. But when one really thinks about it, these are parallel images, certainly conjoined ideas.
“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is endearing because it tries so hard to entertain. In particular, I enjoyed its willingness to touch upon obtuse humor instead of the usual double entendres. However, the material lacks substance—which it is obviously what it is going for during the final hour as it embraces more would-be heartfelt scenarios. I felt bored and annoyed by the melodrama. Perhaps it might have been a stronger work overall had it showed one party after another in which aliens, humans, and those in-between are simply having a blast.