‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ : less “Croydon, 1977” and more “Instagram, 1977”
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Thus said Johnny Rotten in January, 1978 at the conclusion of the Sex Pistols’ one and only US tour. A weary, wounded rhetorical question that served as the condemnation from within of the punk movement. Three days later and the band were no more. Though they briefly limped on without their frontman for both a headline-grabbing single featuring notorious train robber Ronnie Biggs and the McLaren myth-making movie The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, there was no denying that punk was now dead.
Watching How to Talk to Girls at Parties, I was reminded of Rotten’s words. If you’re looking for a truly subversive, artistic and rebellious punk movie here, then you’re going to feel cheated. This is a film essentially about an alien girl who has no idea what punk is and I’m sorry to report that the film has such an equally sketchy grasp of punk that it feels like the film is also made by her, rather than John Cameron Mitchell. It’s an adaptation of a short story by Neil Gaiman which tells the tale of a shy teenage punk called Henry, or Enn for short (played by Alex Sharp), who stumbles upon a strange after-hours house party held by what appears to be a peculiar American cult. The behaviour they witness there appears out of this world to Enn and his friends, and that’s because they are in fact aliens from another planet visiting earth as a peculiar rite of passage. Enn falls in love with one of their number, Zan (Elle Fanning), who is fascinated by Enn’s love of punk and demands to be taught and shown everything about it. Together, the pair set off on a romantic event-filled adventure across Croydon before the truth of Zan’s origins becomes clear, leading to the ultimate showdown between punks and aliens.
With a narrative like that, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a movie that doesn’t just wear its ambitions on its sleeve. Instead, it has strutted on down to Sex on the Kings Road and has elected to wear a suitably distressed, Vivienne Westwood tee with ‘AMBITION’ emblazoned across the front. It’s a production that possesses the singular desire to be seen as a cult movie and unfortunately that is all too needily conveyed to its audience. In wanting to be so very much a part of a scene it is the ultimate sell-out. And that’s really not very punk at all.
And I know some people will just say I don’t get it, because I’m not really a Gaiman fan (I loved Neverwhere yes, and I feel he gave us one of the best Doctor Who stories in recent years with The Doctor’s Wife, followed by one of the absolute, stinking, ugly, and misogynistic worst in Nightmare in Silver) and I know that that will only make them feel more secure in their own love for this, because that’s the beauty of a cult film isn’t it? Those who love it, love it and those who hate it, hate it. But I would argue that a cult movie is an organic thing. It is something that is meant to find that status in its own right. How to Talk to Girls at Parties was clearly, painfully designed right from the off to be a cult movie and you can’t really manufacture something like that with the success it clearly thinks it deserves. Strip away its artiness and its rebellious streak and what we’re left with is nothing more than yet another exercise in the capitalist manipulation of the YA audience, who will lap up this tale of an alien Juliet and her punk Romeo as if it was the single most important love story since Shakespeare’s own, despite the fact that the script itself neglects to put in any of the legwork to make their love story remotely affecting. But no matter, why do that when you can just hit your audience over the head with it instead? Look, these are pretty people and they’re in love, but they’re doomed because of the grown-ups. Oh the feels. All the feels.
So let’s address the film’s two USPs first. Number one; punk. Well, I’ve already said how you’re going to feel cheated because, aesthetically, the film is less ‘Croydon, 1977’ and more ‘Instagram, 1977’. Our protagonists may wear safety pins and boiler suits and yes, there’s the obligatory shot of a space hopper and, oh look over there, there’s a sparsely populated Silver Jubilee street party too, but weirdly there’s only one original punk record on the soundtrack (The Damned’s New Rose) and that’s over and done with once the opening title sequence fades. What How to Talk to Girls at Parties actually looks like is one of those glossy magazine shoots that have chosen to showcase a retro fashion or trend and they’ve selected punk and the 1970s. Basically, everyone’s just gone to the dressing-up box and this approach is never more so apparent than in the casting of the Boadicea character. Presumably Tilda Swinton, the most obvious, natural choice for this role of a Westwood-like first lady of the safety pin, was either unavailable or she just knows a crap script when she reads one. So instead we have to endure Nicole Kidman in the role and its embarrassing. She’s ACTING at every turn, Dick Van Dykeing it all over the shop with the most ridiculous Cockney accent. There’s a bit near the end where she leads her punk children in a charge against the aliens elders that is so daft and cheesy that it feels more like a sequence from a prospective Ben Elton-penned punk jukebox musical – something which I’m sure you’ll agree is about as far away from punk as you can actually get!
OK, it’s not punk. So what about it’s other USP, aliens? Well, I’m afraid to say that the dressing-up box is definitely here again too. Remember Jonathan Glazer’s visceral, creepy and hallucinatory Under the Skin? Well now go on and remove all of those qualities and remake it with Rentaghost‘s budget and overall panto aesthetic, with a cast of performing arts students. The alien elders – or ‘parent teachers’ as they’re known – are space cannibals who eat their young and probe humans, or rather “steal the arse cherries” (genuine line of dialogue from the film there, said by a punk girl dismayed because she had been “saving it”) with their fingers in a bid to gain an appreciation and understanding of our world. Played by the likes of Tom Brooke, Matt Lucas and the divine Ruth Wilson, and led by Edward Petherbridge as a cross-dressing elder statesman who sports a wig seemingly modelled on the hairstyle of the Queen, they wear a mixture of PVC fetish wear, fluorescent robes and Union Jack raincoat ponchos and, if I tell you that both their chief weapon of attack and their defensive strategy seems to be interpretive dance and screaming, then you’ll have an idea of just what Cameron Mitchell’s approach to sci-fi is. Far campier than even ’70s Who, this is less The Man Who Fell To Earth and more The Turkey Who Flopped To Earth.
The juxtaposition of both themes, which should really be something joyous to behold, doesn’t really work at all. I get that there’s a metaphor here in the alien storyline – something to do with how the older generation wants to destroy the rebellious spirit of its young and how punk was borne as a reaction that railed against that – but its handled in a rather hamfisted and irritating, try-hard manner. At times, the film just feels like it is being weird for weirdness’ sake and again that plays into that knowing desire to be a cult. A lot of it also seems to be snickering up its own sleeve which is quite off-putting too. And yet there are moments that almost elevate it to something worth your time, notably in the scene where Zan remodels herself in the moment as a banshee-wailing punk singer, emoting about the fate she fears is around the corner, and in virtually every appearance from Ruth Wilson, specifically those in which she becomes somewhat amusingly true to herself with the aid of some alcohol and sisterly support from Boadicea. Elle Fanning continues to prove she’s something special and I’m sure she’ll walk away from this unscathed and even with a bit of kudos in some circles, but Alex Sharp is quite irritating and their love for each other unconvincing. Equally Enn’s mates Vic and John (Abraham Lewis and Ethan Lawrence) are rather forgettably played. The only other saving grace perhaps lies in Sandy Powell’s eccentric and eye-catching costume design. Despite all the negatives that I’ve said, I’m sure How to Talk to Girls at Parties will find the cult adoration it so clearly seeks, but if you want a proper cult film about punk I’d argue that you’d be better off watching Derek Jarman’s Jubilee rather than this tosh.