Fair Warning – Spoilers for How to Talk to Girls at Parties below:
How to Talk to Girl’s at Parties, John Cameron Mitchell’s fifth feature film, has had a bit of a rough run. It opened to a mixed, muted reception at Cannes 2017. In the wake of that collective shrug, it dropped out of sight until last month, when it opened in the UK and then the US for a limited theatrical release. Critical response, at least on this side of the pond, was essentially identical to Cannes – disappointment, tempered with respect. There was no doubting Mitchell’s ambition and skill, nor the talent of stars Elle Fanning, Alex Sharp and Nicole Kidman. But adapting How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ source material – a Neil Gaiman short story about a young man’s encounters with odd young women at a party full of aliens – was a major challenge. Mitchell’s answer – take the story’s boy-meets-alien-girl core and blow it up into something much bigger and further-reaching – resulted in a warbling, frustrating movie that never quite achieved thematic coherence. Nevertheless, I loved How to Talk to Girls at Parties for its moments of ecstatic cinematic transcendence and for its romance, one that shines only briefly but forever transforms its heroine and hero’s lives.
There is no denying that How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a LOT of movie. Its central story is the romance between young punk Enn (Sharp) and alien visitor Zan (Fanning). Spiraling with their love story are – amongst other things – the crisis and in-fighting Zan’s people face, Enn’s mate Vic's (Abraham Lewis) panic over his own sexuality, and Croyden punk matriarch Boadicea's (Kidman) ambivalence about the state of her life and her domain. When these individual threads wander off into an isolated corner of the movie, How to Talk to Girls at Parties gets scatterbrained and disjointed. Conversely, when Mitchell emphasizes the thematic and narrative commonalities the movie’s many storylines share, and when he draws them together, How to Talk to Girls at Parties creates truly astonishing cinema.
At the film’s midpoint, Zan winds up on stage in Boadicea’s club. She begins her performance by talking about her colony’s history. Her stilted speech soon metamorphizes into a hardcore punk duet with Enn, and then mutates further into a full-blown psychedelic experience. Everyone in the venue, human and alien alike, is drawn in by the song’s power. They don’t share the intimate, neon-colored, deeply surreal trip into space that Enn and Zan take, but they’re affected all the same. Later, having learned that the elder members of Zan’s people eat their young, Enn rallies every punk in Croydon and besieges the aliens’ estate. Punks and the aliens do battle with everything from music to gymnastics to a lengthy heart-to-heart. It’s rare that an action sequence which quotes Scooby-Doo’s chase scenes features multiple instances of profound emotional catharsis. When How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ best, wildest moments hit, they hit hard and leave a deep imprint, burning themselves into memory.
It’s no coincidence that How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ best moments turn on Enn and Zan’s relationship. Fanning and Sharp have marvelous chemistry and play off each other beautifully. Narratively, they affect each other deeply, and the effects of their whirlwind romance continue for decades, well into their separate adulthoods.
By pursuing Enn and seeing Earth outside of the rigid visitation structure her elders adhere to, Zan codifies her own sense of self and the nature of the love she feels for others. And as Zan comes to understand that she loves herself, her siblings and Enn, she increasingly rejects the self-destructive, nihilistic ways of her people. When she gains an opportunity to end the grotesque cycle of birth, education and cannibalism that’s winnowing them down to nothing, Zan takes it. In doing so, she saves herself, her people and her eventual children.
Meanwhile, by pursuing Zan and showing her Earth as he knows it, Enn gains a clearer sense of who he is and the place he wants to make for himself in the world. He rejects Vic’s macho posturing. He lets go of the idealized image he had built of the father who abandoned him. He finds the grace to appreciate that his Mom (Joanna Scanlan) has found someone who makes her happy. He embraces his passion for art, particularly cartooning and comic-writing, driven by his love of it and the worth Zan found in what they both know to be a deeply flawed world populated by deeply flawed people.
Necessity prevents Zan and Enn from staying together. To cast her vote to abolish her people’s cannibalistic cycle, to safely give birth to the children she has conceived with Enn, Zan must discard her human body and return to space. Enn grieves for her, and for the life they could have had if she’d stayed. He also accepts her decision. She lives on in his memories, and their time together proves to be a major inspiration for his work. At the picture’s close, he meets her children. Newly arrived on Earth, they’re nervous. And they’re excited to see the place and meet the person who made such an impact on their mother. It’s a lovely coda to a movie that, for all its faults and flaws, I find extraordinary. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is going to stick with me. I cannot forget it. I will not forget it.