Movie Review – How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How To Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)
Written Phillipa Goslett & John Cameron Mitchell
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

Enn is a young adult at the height of punk in the United Kingdom. He published a fanzine with his two friends where he illustrates the anarchic adventures of his original character Vyris Boy. Enn and his friends frequently cruise the local venues for punk shows and stumble upon what they believe to be a group of American performers doing some experimental performance art/musical show. In actuality, these are alien collectives living in parent-teacher and child groups. Enn falls for Zan, a rebellious member of the visitors and she departs with him to learn about “the punk.” The alien beings see this as disruptive to the biological patterns they have engaged in for countless millennia and set out to undermine Zan or convince her to return home with them.

John Cameron Mitchell came to the attention of most people through his stage musical/feature film Hedwig & the Angry Inch. I was in college when the film was released and rushed to the theater to see it. I loved the movie, bought it on DVD as well as the soundtrack. It’s a very rough-around-the-edges indie film, but the music is what makes it so great, as well as Mitchell’s performance as Hedwig. He’s since gone on to make some drastically different films regarding aesthetics (Shortbus, Rabbit Hole). I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch How to Talk to Girls at Parties, but it does end up being much more akin to the comedy timing of Hedwig.

I hate punk music, well more the attitude a lot of old punk dudes in their 40s/50s exude. I find it grating that they lack the self-reflection to see how they have become the same old guy ranting about how much better music was in their day. I was pleasantly surprised to see Mitchell nod at this idea while still painting a loving picture of a genre of music he adores. At one point, Enn is explaining his character who goes around spreading punk ideology like a virus, infecting everyone. Zan points out the apparent contradiction here of an illness that forces non-conformity on people by making them all alike. I was glad that the consumptive nature of the loud, brash Sex Pistol-ian branches of punk that took over a lot of the style was poked fun at. (If I had to pick a “punk” band I liked it would probably be The Talking Heads who get tossed onto the heap in most conversations of the era. Though I would argue I think of them more as art rock then what punk has come to be defined as concerning sound.)

I was genuinely surprised at how much I liked this movie and the performance of Elle Fanning as Zan. She’s an actress who seems to be coming across my radar every other week in the last two years, and I have been struggling to see her appeal. The Vanishing of Sidney Hall, also a 2018 A24 release, wasted her giving the burgeoning actress a toothless role as a manic pixie dream girl turned corpse to further the male protagonist’s arc. Here…well, she does have more of a character, and this feels like a performance, but she does end being a plot device for the male protagonist the film is centered around.

The biggest problem with How to Talk to Girls at Parties is that I couldn’t stop comparing it with Hedwig and came to the conclusion that the latter was a much better representation of the chaos and profanity of the punk movement. This film feels way too squeaky clean and sanitized to communicate the feel of punk accurately. There’s never a sense of danger and a lack of anarchy. Things get tied up way too neatly, and the film seems like it is scared of being any other than “cute.” Despite all of this the final scene is perfect and nearly redeems the whole picture. I enjoyed this film much more than I anticipated but wish I could have appreciated it even more.

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