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Review: How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)


Title: How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

Genre: Sci-Fi Romantic Coming-of-Age Comedy

Director: John Cameron Mitchell

Stars: Alex Sharp, Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson, Matt Lucas

Bias: Neil Gaiman (who wrote the short story upon which the film is based) is one of my favorite writers, and this is a particularly “Gaiman-y” film.

Grade: B+

In a Nutshell:

How to Talk to Girls at Parties is set in Croydon in 1977, at the height of the punk era. The story follows Enn (Sharp) and his two best friends, John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (A.J. Lewis) as they as they push their 'zine, go to shows, and try to meet girls. After getting lost looking for the after-party thrown by local legend Queen Boadicea (Kidman) they wind up at a very different party – this one featuring a large group of alien tourists in human form, who’ve come to Earth to gain knowledge before a ritual rite of passage. Enn meets and falls in love with Zan (Fanning), who rejects her family’s hypocrisy and conservative ways and wants to learn more about this thing called “punk.”

The Critique:

Somewhere buried deep beneath my robotic exterior and functional sociopathy is a secret romantic and sentimentalist. It’s what draws me to films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Before Sunrise, and Love, Actually. It’s also why Gaiman’s work appeals to me as much as it does, as it’s so often built around unapologetic romance and sentiment, though often dressed up in fantasy, sci fi, or horror. Girls, with its views on young rebellion, first loves, and the absolute certainty that many of us felt (or feel) that the thing we’re into could change the world if only everyone else were just as into it, is a perfect mix of the romantic and the sentimental. It’s been a minute since I’ve read the original story, but Mitchell’s film smartly takes all of that sincerity and occasionally allows the characters moments to question if any of it really does mean anything (or, that maybe the thing we’re into is just a bit of fun and there’s nothing wrong with that, either).

I also have to admit that I haven’t seen any of Mitchell’s other films (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus, or Rabbit Hole). But there’s an inventiveness and daring to the direction and cinematography at key moments – including a stunning musical sequence in the middle of the film – that makes me want to seek those out. They also serve to reinforce the off-kilter nature of both the genre aspects of the story as well as the subversiveness and disruptive intent of the punk movement the film centers around. Additionally, there's some fun inventiveness with the looks of the aliens, working around the constraints of the budget.

That said, the film isn’t perfect by any means. Playing what is effectively a manic pixie dream girl role, Fanning’s performance is too subdued and flat for most of the movie to convincingly sell it (though maybe that's intentional). There are also characters and relationships that are dropped into the story without really being introduced and explained, and the motivations of the supporting characters feel driven more by plot-necessity than anything else.

Shout-Out(s):

Much attention has rightfully been given to Nicole Kidman’s turn as Queen Boadicea. She virtually disappears under a mass of silver hair and a bitter, aging-punk energy, in stark contrast to her often more cold and proper characters. I’d also like to single out A.J. Lewis as Vic, whose encounter with Ruth Wilson’s Stella at the titular party shakes his faux-Johnny Rotten exterior and forces him to discover some things about himself and the world around him. Lewis plays what would often be a flatly comic arc with real sincerity, grounding it and giving it greater depth.

To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix:

After opening at Cannes in May, the film’s been on a slowly-expanding limited release schedule. Given that, it might be a challenge to catch it in theaters (though it’s worth doing so, if you can). If not, it’s definitely worth a rental as soon as it’s available.

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