Embedded somewhere within the footage used to make How to Talk to Girls at Parties, I suspect a modestly adept film dwells. Certainly a number of raucous sequences could pump up the energy of any self-respecting punk rock video, or edited into a parody of an early Beatles film, in the spirit of the Sex Pistols’ version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” A moot point, because director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus) chose to go in another direction. Besides, the film, as they say, is already in the can.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s 5,000-word tale about three girl-crazy high school blokes tripping around London in pre-Thatcher Britain, How to Talk to Girls at Parties starts promisingly enough. Guided by some sketchy, imprecisely recalled directions, Enn (Alex Sharp) and his mates head out in search of a purportedly wild party. They stumble upon what they assume “must be the place” after an attractive but odd young woman answers the door. As an unclassifiable strain of avant-garde music plays in the background, the boys talk their way into the strange festivities, but soon discover these partiers are way further out than they could’ve ever imagined. Most everyone is donned in skin-tight spandex body suits in primary and secondary colors. They talk in an oddly-cadenced American-accented new-age cult-speak, vintage late ‘70s. The boys justifiably infer they’re “probably from California.” In fact, these eccentric beings are on a brief stop of an intergalactic journey.
The ensuing hit-or-miss comedy of errors and interspecies misunderstandings works intermittently, for a while, but as Mitchell’s script (co-written by Philippa Goslett) extrapolates beyond the source material, the film becomes increasingly muddled. The biggest problem lies in Enn’s alien love interest, Zan (Elle Fanning)—no fault of Ms. Fanning or her acting chops. The imprecision of her character devolves from ambiguous into incoherent, playing out like a battle between the writers struggling to define her identity. This script-based defect increasingly reverberates throughout the last half of the film like a butterfly effect, culminating in an uninteresting morass full of frenetic action signifying “So what.”
Edited down to 40 minutes or less, the maximum length for a short film as decreed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, How to Talk to Girls at Parties might actually have been a good movie. After all, you’ve got Nicole Kidman hamming it up as Queen Boadicea, punk mother hen to a loose-knit flock of artists and musicians. Then there’s A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers, among others, on the soundtrack. But there are better realized films out there in the “Young Bohemians vs. the Aliens” genre. Check out a post-punk movie called Liquid Sky (1982); also a hipster favorite, Kaboom (2010).
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is currently playing at the Salem Cinema.