Cannes 2017 Review: HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES

John Cameron Mitchell’s tackling of this Neil Gaiman Story falters yet occasionally fascinates.

Well, the nerd cred is certainly there for How to Talk to Girls at Parties to be a big hit. Bring on a story by Neil Gaiman that mixes punk with teen angst, all told within a surreal and trans-dimensional love story. Get John Cameron Mitchel to helm it, a man who is no stranger to complicated tales of romance and loss, the thought of writhing groups in laxex luxuriating is hardly off-putting for the man behind Hedwig.

Yet despite this promising synergy one is left with a bit of a dud. It should play like Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet, where the stylistic contrivances are so thickly applied that they work like oil paint, somehow slurrying into something truly satisfying. Instead the primary colours often clash, the elements seeming haphazard and disorganized than truly the foundation of a fully realized world.

This is not to say that the film’s completely without charm. Take Nicole Kidman (last seen with JCM in his underappreciated Rabbit Hole), here serving as den mother/viper mouth for a group of young punks, railing about the conformity that Vivianne Westwood and her ilk have applied to the spirit of the music she still holds dear. Elle Fanning always looks either angelic or extraterrestrial, so her role as the pioneering individual defying the collective seems as perfect a fit as her skintight costume. Alex Sharp, who caused a stir at Sundance with the anorexia drama To The Bone, is affable enough here at Enn, the punky teen pedaling his bike into adulthood. 

Narratively this is that good ol’ tale of boy-meets-collective of trans-dimensional creatures that has a single instantiation that seeks individuality that all the films seem to have these days. Looking for a party, a trio of young lads stumble upon a party scored by Giorgio Morodor-like thumping, where limits are stretched and new feelings are expressed. Plus, lots of latex nipples.

After the noise dies down and we see these characters clearly, and most of the excess of costume or set are allowed to calm there’s a genuinely sweet story about finding one's voice and battling between self-interest and the sacrifices of love. This is a party where the music’s too loud, the light’s too bright and all you want to do is climb out to some quiet spot and have a conversation rather than trying to shout at one another. There’s a connection there to be had for sure, but it’s drowned out by a cacophony of extraneous nonsense.

In Short Bus, or even Hedwig, this excess is the core of what’s at play. Here, it feels often superfluous, again reminding of the likes of Baz Luhrman at his most lurid. It’s as if Gaiman’s tale is screeched through some distorted mic while guitars growl and drums explode when what’s needed for this punk story is a small acoustic set.

I’m not even sure that JCM gets Croydon right, and his punk ethos certainly feels far more of a kink than a real delve into Quadrophenia-like musical subculture realism. It’s as if the film’s on the one hand too precious with what it’s trying to draw upon, and yet too distant from its minutia to make it truly effective.

In the end How to Talk to Girls at Parties is an interesting misfire, fully of sound and fury but signifying little more than love is in the air, every sight and every sound. Young kids in love is rich for narrative plunder, and the trappings of punk, BDSM and more should intermingle into some orgy of awesome. Instead, we stand aside coldly as the party takes place, ogling a bit at what’s on offer but seemingly aware, sneering or not, that even the participants don’t look like they’re having such a fun time, and maybe all this mingling is just another awkward pose like any other.

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