In 1977, Enn (Alex Sharp) and his buddies Victor (A.J. Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence) write a fanzine, Virys, about the punk bands they see in Croydon. One night, Enn is drawn to some strange music emanating from a large seemingly abandoned building. It is full of strange women dressed in bright latex, but the boys don't notice just how alien they are as they focus on "How to Talk to Girls at Parties."
Cowriter (with Philippa Goslett)/director John Cameron Mitchell has had an unusual filmography to date, beginning with his Broadway adaptation of "Hedwig and the Angry Itch," before moving on to the NYC sex salon of "Shortbus" and art house drama "Rabbit Hole." Now, adapting a Neil Gaiman short story, he's borrowed elements of all three in a narratively messy but joyously contagious alien punk rock musical.
Enn is hoping to make connect with Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman, looking like a photo negative of Siouxsie Sioux), the influential scenester who manages The Discords, but her displeasure with lead singer Slap (Martin Tomlinson, sporting black and white hair and a ratty red tulle gown) breaks up the party early. After knocking on the door of the weirdly musical home, Victor is led away by 'Stella' (Ruth Wilson, Showtime's 'The Affair'),' a woman in 60's fetish orange, while Enn becomes fascinated with the lovely Zan (Elle Fanning), whose talk of her alien world is completely misinterpreted, but who wants Enn to 'do punk' to her (he shreds the hem of her bright yellow shift). Throughout the house are color coded aliens representing different aspects of their culture. Some engage in elaborate acrobatics, but most seem interested in sex, just what these lads are after. Zan arranges for special 48 hour pass from her 'Parent Teacher' Waldo (Tom Brooke, AMC's 'Preacher') to explore her individuality and takes off with Enn, but Victor, traumatized by his experience, insists they've fallen in with an incestuous, cannibalistic suicide cult.
This fish-out-of-water tale is like the inverse of Julien Temple's 1984 "Earth Girls Are Easy" with production (Helen Scott) and costume (Sandy Powell) design reminiscent of "A Clockwork Orange." The alien mythology is far too convoluted, which is a shame given its themes of conformity and over population, but its celebration of the punk movement is on point. When Enn and Zan stumble into Boadicea's warehouse (the name comes from London's 'original punk,' a Celtic Queen who failed in her efforts to drive the Romans from London in 60 A.D.), she's taken with Zan's story of having been a 'star' who collided with a 'brown dwarf' and announces her as The Discords' new singer. What follows is a raucous performance, Zan winning over the crowd singing about her people, cosmically merging with Enn when he joins in. Meanwhile, Waldo, who's been 'riding' humans like Enn's mum (Joanna Scanlan) to keep tabs on his ward, insists she return for 'the eating,' the ritual that ensures their species' continuance. Boadicea leads a revolt on the aliens' nest.
I was expecting the film to be a disaster after its reception at 2017's Cannes Film Festival, but despite all its problems, "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" has its charms. Sharp, fresh off his Tony win for 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,' is a thoroughly engaging protagonist and his romance with Fanning is sweet. Fanning is perfect as the engaging alien whose attempts to communicate are recast by her listeners' desires. Kidman may not be the most convincing punk to grace the screen, but she's clearly having a ball doing it. Cameron Mitchell had to forego using music from The Sex Pistols and The Slits due to budgetary limitations, but original music by Tomlinson does the trick.
Robin also gives "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" a C+.
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