It looked good on paper. James Cameron Mitchell, the director and star of the now legendary Hedwig and the Angry Inch, bringing a provocative short story from Neil Gaiman about three young men who meet a girl who isn’t what she seems to the big screen. Cameron Mitchell’s twist is he took a tale that was merely set in the punk era and has attempted to immerse it in a manner that borders on kitsch. Overall, however, you have a bigger problem when the end result has little to do with the film’s title, How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
The set-up is pretty simple. Enn (Alex Sharp) and his buddies John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (Abraham Lewis, impressively memorable) are hardcore punk fans that live and breathe the scene as much as you can in the outskirts of London. After attending a local gig with a performance by SLAP (Martin Tomlinson), they head to an after party they believe is being held by the scene’s creative guru, Boadicea (Nicole Kidman, dragged up and having a blast). Instead, they end up crashing a home squatted by a group of strange, sexy and odd out of town visitors decked out in mostly futuristic latex costumes, which are painfully out of place in the ‘70s. Exploring the different rooms Enn comes upon Zan (Elle Fanning as wonderful as ever), a young woman who seems much more interested in exploring what’s going on out side the party than in it. And, surprise, young love ensues.
Frankly, it takes a bit too long for the three friends to realize these visitors are actually aliens from another world (you could argue only Enn ever figures it out), but Cameron Mitchell lets the audience in on their true nature almost immediately because the clock is ticking. This is their fourth incarnation and, as is the tradition, Zan and her fellow tourists only have 48 hours before they are consumed by their creators; the parent-teachers. Those parent-teachers quickly lose control of their underlings as Zan’s excursions convince her peers to also venture from their protected confines into the real world.
After a night with Enn, Zan is brought back to her group of tourists and we find our hero devising a way to rescue her in hopes of allowing her to stay on Earth. The result is recruiting Boadicea and her followers to attack the tourist’s home in order to create a distraction that allows Enn to reunite with Zan. It’s not really a traditional fight though. It’s more like a dance battle with high-pitched alien music against punk classics blasting from a portable speaker. You may find that funny, or you may not.
Cameron Mitchell isn’t making things easy for himself. He clearly has a specific visual and thematic vision he’s trying to execute here. He wants to wrap a tale of young love around themes of identity, sexuality and self-actualization. He wants this world to seem somewhat grounded, but surreal at the same time. And it’s simply a bit too much.
Along with co-screenwriter Philippa Goslett, Cameron Mitchell has fashioned a screenplay that mistakenly gets bogged down in the tourist’s philosophies and general mumbo jumbo, so much so that you don’t really care what they do. And that’s despite the best efforts of actors like Ruth Wilson, Matt Lucas (almost unrecognizable) and Tom Brooke doing everything they can to infuse real characters in these parent-teachers. The film’s climax also hinges on a barely earned emotional connection between Enn and Zan that causes the final third of the film to fall almost completely flat.
It must be noted, however, there are some moments where Cameron Mitchell gets to show off his unique skills. The beginning of the movie features Enn riding around Croydon in a sequence that’s meant to rubber stamp its punk credentials and it’s a viscerally impressive start. Enn and Zan have a musical number that’s definitely not as punk as it wants to be, but the actors are so committed it’s hard not to get swept up in it. Vic arguably has the biggest and most unexpected arc in the movie after having, um, multiple orifices opened to different experiences. Kidman and Wilson’s characters have one particular showdown that Cameron Mitchell mines so wonderfully you wish they had more screen time. And Cameron Mitchell and costume designer Sandy Powell collaborate for some unique vinyl looks that are simply to striking to forget.
The biggest disappointment is that despite Cameron Mitchell’s efforts the entire endeavor seems strangely familiar. In theory, this is a movie that would have opened people’s eyes and even ruffled some feathers fifteen or twenty years ago. Today, it feels playfully stale in the current cinematic landscape. The cinematic energy that permeated the screen in both Hedwig and its follow-up, the oft-forgotten Shortbus, is completely missing here. It makes you wonder: is it the subject matter, Cameron Mitchell aesthetic, or both that is to blame?
How To Talk To Girls At Parties is currently schedule for a limited release sometime in 2017.