Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Movie Review: How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How to Talk to Girls at Parties ** ½ / *****
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell.
Written by: Philippa Goslett & John Cameron Mitchell based on the short story by Neil Gaiman.
Starring: Elle Fanning (Zan), Alex Sharp (Enn), Nicole Kidman (Queen Boadicea), Ruth Wilson (PT Stella), Matt Lucas (PT Wain), Alice Sanders (Spinning Jenny), Abraham Lewis (Vic), Joanna Scanlan (Marion, Enn’s mother), Elarica Johnson (Dark Stella), Jessica Plummer (Celia), Natalie Lauren (Rhonda), Rory Nolan (Young Enn).
I don’t know why there seem to be increasingly long gaps in the directing career of John Cameron Mitchell – but I’m not too happy about it. His directorial debut, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was pure punk rock energy – and was also quite moving. His second film is my favorite of his work – the sexually explicit and sexually adventurous Shortbus – perhaps the only movie that used real sex and didn’t feel cheap or exploitive – because ultimately it was more about pleasure, and the goofiness of sex, than anything else. When he did a stage adaptation of Rabbit Hole – with a great Nicole Kidman performance – he showed a sure hand at straight drama – and delivered a devastating movie, that I have no idea why more people didn’t see. That was eight years ago now though, and we’re only finally getting his fourth film – How to Talk to Girls at Parties. It has all the energy you would want from a John Cameron Mitchell film – but not a whole lot else. That energy goes a long way however, as do the performances. I don’t think the whole thing ultimately adds up to anything – but it’s hard to hate it.
It’s the early 1980s in Croydon, England – and the film centers of Enn (Alex Sharp) and his two friends – who are teenage, British punks – the affable and goofy kind, not the kind who would do anything scary or mean. They are more mocked than anything by the other local punks – but even then, it’s mainly in a friendly way. After a show, they stumble around looking for the after party – and that is how they find a house full of strange creatures that they assume are punks of a different sort. They are not. Instead, they are aliens – here for tourism purposes (I think, it’s kind of unclear) for a short period of time before travelling back to where they came from. In order to survive, they must eat their young (again, don’t ask). It’s here Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning) – who wants to rebel against her Parent Teachers as she calls them – and gets 48 hours to hang out with Enn and learn “all about the punk”.
The movie lucked out in getting Fanning to play Zan. Fanning is one of the best young actresses out there – she has been building up quite a resume in the past decade (Somewhere, Super 8, Ginger & Rosa, The Neon Demon, 20th Century Women, The Beguiled) – and she’s only 20. The role of Zan is a dangerous one – it risks being so blank that the fact Enn falls in love with her could be seen as misogyny – that he loves her because she’s stupid. But Fanning makes Zan lovable and sweet – she’s not blank in a dumb way, but a curious one. Hers is the best performance in the movie – although she gets good assists from Nicole Kidman, as the local punk queen, going gloriously over the top, and Ruth Wilson, as a the leader of the so called Stellas – part of the aliens who have some interesting sexual practices. Alex Sharp is kind of like a lost puppy dog as Enn – so you’ll either fall for him, or find him incredibly annoying.
The film movies along with buoyant energy for its first two thirds – including a wonderfully weird song that Zan and Enn sing in the punk club that I won’t soon forget – and is definitely staged for people who liked the more outlandish musical moments of Hedwig, the movie. You keep wondering though just what exactly the movie is building to – what precisely it has to say about anything. Ultimately, it is a story about literature star crossed lovers, but does it have any real insight into them? Into anything?
Sadly, the answer to that seems to be no. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is fun and entertaining in fits in starts – but it doesn’t really go anywhere, or do anything. I’m sure it will become a cult hit in some circles – it’s based on a Neil Gaiman short story after all, and Mitchell has his own cult following. But when it ended, I was wondering what the point of it all was. It’s a movie full of energy – and not much else.

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