How to Talk to Girls at Parties
Edwin Arnaudin: The delightfully weird How to Talk to Girls at Parties, the new film from John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch; Rabbit Hole), is currently wallowing in 45% territory on Rotten Tomatoes’ super trustworthy Tomatometer with an audience score of a mere 40%. Why do you think the movie is having difficulty finding supporters — and do you count yourself among them?
Bruce Steele: I loved it, for the most part, but it's definitely a cult movie in search of a cult. It's takes absurdity seriously, and you have to be OK with that. But it's got a fairly linear plot: In a London suburb in 1977, wanna-be punk kid Enn (Alex Sharp) meets seemingly human space alien Zan (Elle Fanning), who's visiting Earth with several highly regimented "colonies" of other aliens. Zan wants her freedom, and Enn shows her a punky good time. It's a "fish out of water" love story. I suspect the main sticking point with buttoned-up critics and unadventurous viewers is that the aliens are reminiscent of the SNL-skit-adjacent Thermians from Galaxy Quest.
Edwin: But critics (and cult film enthusiasts) love Galaxy Quest! Perhaps there’s only room for so many spandex-clad E.T.s in their world, but I treasure these vibrant bursts of quirk when they come around. Based on the short story by Neil Gaiman, a detail that would seemingly attract more love, it’s committed to its straight-faced preposterousness and stays active as the clock ticks on Zan’s final 48 hours on the planet. Fanning’s unusual beauty is near ideal casting and she has strong chemistry with Sharp, a Tony winner for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time who seems primed for a successful film career.
Bruce: Both leads are fine, but Fanning is especially charming. The other aliens are mostly silly — in their wonderfully ridiculous costumes by Oscar winner Sandy Powell (Carol; Cinderella) — but Fanning is committed to making Zan a character with deep feelings, and she nails it. She has some really funny bits, especially talking to her alien superior, who speaks through various incongruous humans, but she makes it work but playing it straight. The movie has a lot of goofy elements, but it's not a goofy movie. It's quite heartfelt. Did the balance of heart and humor remind you of Hedwig?
Edwin: It did, and the cheeky musical numbers further establish the two films as siblings — or at least close cousins. In moments both heartfelt and goofy, it’s clear that Mitchell wants viewers to laugh at the honest material even if his characters largely abstain from such behavior. For me, it’s all in the service of a smart allegory of first love and the impact those experiences make on the open-hearted. How key did you find the period setting to the film’s success?
Bruce: Good question. I think the punk era lets the craziness of the aliens fit in with the madness (in both senses) of the punks, all of them deadly serious in their dizziness. It gives the movie a kind of fairy tale quality, supporting the allegory you speak of, well removed from the present and from modern tech. And the fairy queen in this tale is none other than Nicole Kidman, in perhaps her craziest wig yet!
Edwin: She’s Jareth the Goblin King before there was such a thing! (And I thought her red curly ‘fro from Lion was crazy…) I also agree with you on the largely simpatico ways of the punks and aliens. Both groups are committed outsiders with their own codes and could stand to incorporate some values beyond their membership. And not that you can’t tell them apart, but when they mesh in public, they easily could pass as one big club. With all these qualities working in the movie’s favor, what aspects weren’t quite there for you?
Bruce: I was disappointed that the big musical number, which is so energetic and such a culmination of everything up to that point, segues into an acid-trip-like sequence. Indeed, the few animated segments are all cheesy in the bad-art way, rather than being endearingly low-rent (as are some of the live-action scenes). After a snappy first hour, the pacing slackens in the last act. It's not a fatal flaw, and a super-sweet coda makes up for it, but it did knock me off my high for a while. And you?
Edwin: I’m not sure what to make of those spacey stretches, either, but my attention never really waned. In hindsight, I’d like to know a little more about Enn’s friends Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence) as well as his single mother (Joanna Scanlan) and, frankly, Kidman’s punk club owner, though in the moment they provide sufficient character details and keep the plot moving. I guess my main complaint is that as charming as I found How to Talk to Girls at Parties, it never took me to the next level of emotional (Rabbit Hole) nor energetic (Hedwig) heights the way Mitchell’s best work did.
Bruce: It's something of a trifle, but it's appetizing and smile-inducing. I actually think there's just enough character development for the pals and Mom and Queen Kidman, since weighing down the movie with more back story could have been a drag, in both senses. This move is not a drag. It's a hoot, and people with a quirky sense of humor and adventure should catch it quick at the Grail Moviehouse, since like Zan's visit to Earth, its time may be limited. It's well worth a B-plus.
Edwin: Sprouting from a short story, it’s a small miracle that Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett have expanded the material into nearly 100 minutes of entertainment. But yes, despite our love for the film, it’s understandable why the Grail is only showing it at 7 and 9:15 p.m. Like its characters, it’s a movie that operates outside of the norm, and I hope the weirdos destined to love it will find it. I’ll go a half step farther and give it an A-minus.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse