One of the movies A24 brought to premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival was the new John Cameron Mitchell directorial effort How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Arriving with oodles of hype, the feature debuted to mixed reviews, which shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone involved in the production considering it was such a strange entity that wasn’t going to be for everyone’s tastes. Unfortunately, A24 really seemed to have been taken aback by this response and it caused the films domestic theatrical release to constantly get delayed until it got dumped at the end of May 2018 in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release.
What a tragic fate for How to Talk to Girls at Parties which turns out to be one of the more delightful surprises of 2018. In his cinematic adaptation of a Neil Gaiman short story, John Cameron Mitchell gets to pay homage to both the 1970’s punk rock scene and cosmic weirdness with equal measures of creativity and reverence. What kind of story could combine those two elements? Well, this is a John Cameron Mitchell adaptation of Neil Gaiman-penned source material, you better believe it’s a delightfully kooky story! Enn (Alex Sharp) and his two pals are punk rock aficionados residing in London who meet a young woman named Zan (Elle Fanning) while stumbling upon an extremely peculiar party.
The party is so strange because its run by an alien species that Zan belongs to. Turns out Zan’s alien race is an extremely strict one that abides by rigidly enforced rules and travel to planets only to engage in surface-level tourism. Zan wants more though, she really wants to live her life and explore Earth and so she runs off with Enn, who has taken a romantic fancy to her, in hopes of actually getting a chance to feel alive. One of the best parts about how this story ends up getting told is that it doesn’t get bogged down in just exploring some kind of overly complex mythos of the alien species that Zan belongs to. Their origins and every minute detail about these creatures don’t matter, what does matter is their strict nature and how Zan feels like it’s suffocating her.
John Cameron Mitchell and Philippa Goslett’s screenplay nicely handles the science-fiction elements in a concise fashion so that we can explore the characters of Zan and Enn. For both of these crazy kids, punk rock serves as an outlet for their frustrations, a way for them to rebel against a world that both frustrates and constricts them. The core principles of rebellion and individuality that founded punk rock in the first place are abundant in their stories and even for someone like me who isn’t a devotee to the punk rock scene (though I like a whole bunch of punk rock bands), it becomes completely clear why they’d become so heavily enamored with this music scene that stands for so much more than just a catalogue of tunes.
Of course, how could one not become fixated on a local strain of a larger music scene that’s led by Nicole Kidman just reveling in entertaining hamminess as she walks around on-screen in a get-up that’s like what would happen if Cruella DeVille ended up in a Mad Max movie. Kidman’s hysterical performance is evidence of maybe the most crucial element of How to Talk to Girls at Parties: it’s sense of fun. This is just an exceedingly entertaining movie to watch in so many ways, from the delightful costumes ( the aliens are all adorned in wonderful colorful Devo-like outfits) to the humor to the numerous instances of it just getting so dang weird to certain moments designed to make me cheer like the sight an army of punk rockers storming an alien compound. Most entertaining of all though is the lead performance from Elle Fanning. Fanning is a performer who’s worked wonders with more restrained dramatic turns in recent years (wasn’t she great in 20th Century Women?) but she delivers maybe her best work yet in what has to be her most upbeat performance since maybe We Bought A Zoo.
Zan is a character who, in the wrong hands, could have easily ended up as just an object for a male lead character to fawn over and to become his prize at the end of the story, but instead, both the script and Fanning’s performance give Zan plenty of her own individual life. I especially love how her desire to discover the larger unfamiliar world of Earth completely straight, the story wants you to get invested in her hopes to break away from her strict culture’s rules and follow Enn into the land of punk rock anarchy. This means her naivety on Earth culture produces some laughs, but never in a mocking manner, this movie has nothing but love for Zan and her plight which comes to include human punk rock devotee Enn
Enn is another character who could have been totally insufferable in the wrong hands, but thankfully, he works great here as a tour guide of sorts of Zan’s first trip to Earth, a jaded yin to Zan’s hopeful yang, if you will. Alex Sharp does strong work in the role too, particularly in how well he plays off Elle Fanning’s excellent lead performance. In addition to these superb performances, the fact that the script for How to Talk to Girls at Parties has such a clear love for Zan and Enn likely helps these characters come to such vivid life and that love extends to the well-realized supporting cast as well. The characters are so engaging, in fact, that a late scene showing the punk rockers and aliens putting aside their differences and just chilling and bonding over light conversation becomes one of the more unexpectedly moving scenes I’ve seen in a good long while. Unexpectedly moving instances of pathos, great performances, loads of awesome needle drops, did I mention Nicole Kidman plays a Punk rock legend in this movie? How in the name of God did How to Talk to Girls at Parties get such mixed marks at Cannes last year, this movie rules!