There is a point in John Cameron Mitchell’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties where earthly Enn (played by Alex Sharp) and otherworldly Zan (played by Elle Fanning) share tomatoes while punk music plays, both separately and with each biting the other side. It is fun, adorable, and a rather sweet image. The scene then ends with a bird’s eye view, showing that mere feet away, sewage sludge is lurching from a pipe and building up against the wall, the run-off the cause of this hidden garden. It’s certainly a statement, this goodness growing among the waste. It is a statement that this movie itself knows all too well.
The film, an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman short story by the same name, came out of the Cannes Film Festival 2017 with less-than-stellar reviews, and it is not difficult to understand the reason. The movie is certainly not for everyone, a mishmash of the punk rock scene in ‘70’s England, surreal alien mumbo-jumbo that would not feel out of place in a B-movie of that same era, and romantic comedy between the two leads. Of those three pieces, the latter is by far the more captivating piece, as Sharp and Fanning are charismatic and do their best to carry the film through thick and thin. The punk angle does have a good grip, as well, in its music choice, and Nicole Kidman’s glorified cameo and characteristic chopped frame videography reminiscent of punk videos of that time. There is a charm to the middle of the movie’s runtime that can make it difficult to truly dislike.
But it is at the edges, the things around the fish out of water story that Fanning is involved in, where the movie becomes something of a disappointment. It’s bizarre for the sake of it, a time capsule of a movie from a time where a bunch of people named Stella, latex suits, shrill screams, and anal fixations aplenty were seen as unique and a shock, but in these attempts to seem strange in 2018, it only leads to a shrug rather than a wondering of what it all means.
The more energetic and memorable moment comes at the halfway point where the leads end up playing at a punk show, Fanning at first meekly speaking into the microphone before settling into a fast and loose song with Sharp, both becoming rather wonderful to watch at this moment as things get a little psychedelic. This part, along with a dream/reality sequence shot rather spectacularly, is the full highlights, along with a fun romp through town, which culminates in the aforementioned sludge realization.
But if only the movie was not so messy. The third act starts out exciting and with potential but turns utterly baffling, relying on the previous two acts’ detriments rather than its strengths. There is an air of importance in what it tries to say, but it does so for the sake of the message it had been originally attempted to achieve. Perhaps that is the point, but in that choice and the way it is delivered, it leads to feeling like the movie is confused and not quite sure what it is.
Kidman is having a ball as a punk club owner by the name of Queen Boadicea, tossing insults and curses and breaking up kisses with lines like, “enough of this hippie shit.” Her performance borders on hammy, but it is genuine enough that it comes across as fun.
Which is perhaps the right way to consider How To Talk To Girls At Parties. It’s bordering on the absurd and the unfortunate but manages to eke past that with a satisfying middle section. The lead performances are quite good–Fanning in particular–and the punk scene is a good place to spend time, but the mess that remains is too much clean-up for such a small amount of entertainment.