'How to Talk to Girls at Parties': Film Review | Cannes 2017

Close encounters of the absurd kind.

Elle Fanning stars opposite screen newcomer Alex Sharp, along with Nicole Kidman and Ruth Wilson, in John Cameron Mitchell's interspecies punk romance adapted from Neil Gaiman's short story.

Imagine an anarchic collision between Derek Jarman's Jubilee and a gender-flipped Earth Girls Are Easy (anyone?), then toss in a hallucinogenic dash of Romeo and Juliet, and you're at least in an adjacent galaxy to John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties. If those elements sound like random bedfellows, indeed they are in this scrappy blowout of Neil Gaiman's evocative short story of the same name, about a romance-starved South London teenager's night of otherworldly intoxication during the early days of punk.

There's a sprinkling of incidental pleasures here, among them Nicole Kidman as a jaded low priestess pedaling hardcore nihilism with a sneer; and the ever-ethereal Elle Fanning as an alien with a dreamy sensuality and a healthy curiosity about the ways of our planet. But there's too little narrative cohesion or persuasive subtext to make this much more than a low-budget folly that's outre without always being terribly interesting.

Longtime fans of Mitchell will be somewhat gratified to see him returning, after the more conventional Rabbit Hole, to the raw self-expression through a specific musical subculture of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the polymorphous sexuality of his disarmingly sweet art-porn experiment Shortbus. But it's questionable how far even that partisan audience will be willing to indulge the writer-director in this appealingly hand-made but messy spaced oddity, spelling a soft future for the undated A24 release.

At the center of the story, set in the rundown suburbia of 1977 Croydon, is Enn, an aspiring graphic artist played with a galvanizing creative spark and a hunger for worldly experience by Alex Sharp, a Tony Award winner when he was fresh out of Juilliard for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Mitchell cranks the energy up high in the speedy opening as Enn gets kitted out in his schoolboy punk gear and then sails off on his bicycle, picking up fellow musketeers Vic (AJ Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence) on the way.

They head to a gig by local band the Dyschords, fronted in a ratty red prom dress by gender-outlaw singer Slap (Martin Tomlinson, who wrote the original throwback punk songs with Bryan Weller) and managed with a vicious snarl by Kidman's queen bee, Boadicea. Spewing profanities and cigarette smoke from beneath her platinum-streaked Siouxsie Sioux rats' nest, and decked out by costumer Sandy Powell in severe zipper chic, Kidman appears to be having a blast, liberating her inner banshee.

Following the show, the lads go looking for an afterparty, but instead are drawn by the siren song of strange music to a massive for-sale house. They're greeted at the door by Stella (Ruth Wilson, wasted), an exotic beauty with a cryptic manner and, it soon turns out, a talent for mind-altering anal probes. The party is populated by similarly bizarre types — a collective of color-coded humanoid subgroups clothed in latex sex-shop couture that engage in mysterious formation dances and circus stunts.

While Vic is led off by Stella to have his consciousness raised and his prostate massaged, John dives into the dance action and Enn zeroes in on the lovely Zan (Fanning), who confuses him with her affectless talk of colonies, fresh physical manifestations and abominations. Taking her to be some kind of eminently desirable cult crazy, he attempts to keep up with her enigmatic psychobabble, and she finds unexpected meaning in his fumbling account of himself. "There are contradictions in your metaphor," she tells him later. "But I am moved by it."

Vic insists on a hasty retreat from the party, which is where Gaiman's original story ends and the more elaborate developments of the screenplay by Mitchell and Philippa Goslett kick in. Which is generally not a good thing.

Zan gets special dispensation from her parent/teacher PT Waldo (Tom Brooke) to spend 48 hours with her earthling acquaintance, intrigued by his promise to take her "to the punk." Following a chaste night in Enn's home, where his mother (Joanna Scanlan) is used by Waldo as a vessel to keep tabs on his rebellious offspring, they land back at Boadicea's den. A quick makeover follows, and before long Zan is thrust onto the stage in place of the uncontrollable Slap, flanked by an emboldened Enn as she improvises an explosive musical performance that reveals the history of her people.

That turns out to be a high point that Mitchell thereafter can rarely match. The unsound plotting devolves into a confused clash between punks and aliens, in which the progressives among them lobby to break their cannibalistic tradition of devouring their young. They face off against the unyielding traditionalists, led by arch matron PT First (Edward Petherbridge) and contemptuous PT Wain (Matt Lucas). Meanwhile, developments emerge concerning Zan that could alter the future of their species, forcing her to choose between staying and going.

Much of this is familiar ‘70s-style sci-fi fodder dressed up in flamboyant attitude, but the attempt to add political substance feels less than half-cooked. The screenwriters weave in sociopolitical elements by viewing the rise of anti-establishment punk against the conservative festivities surrounding the Queen’s Silver Jubilee; trashing hetero-normative mindsets in favor of boundaryless sexual fluidity; and weighing the England vs. America divide, with the aliens initially assumed by John to be “Californians.” Even the rampant commercialization of punk’s rule-breaking purity gets a look in via Boadicea’s bilious scorn for all those who profited from her antifashion-forward ideas.

But ultimately, this psychedelic culture-clash comedy-romance takes what was at heart a relatively simple story by Gaiman, which channeled bold sci-fi imagination into relatable adolescent experience, and overcomplicates it beyond repair. It makes a case for transcendent connections as a final-frontier colony worth discovering, but as a more stirring variation on that theme, I'll stick with Mitchell's classic Hedwig song, "Origin of Love."

Paradoxically, the movie becomes most effective when it abandons the outlandishness and grants Enn, Vic and John an uncharacteristically quiet moment of reflection about what they’ve learned. It then skips forward to a lovely 1992 epilogue that points the way toward interspecies harmony with a graphic novelist’s geeky vision of the ultimate alternative family. Too bad that same gentle touch wasn’t more in evidence in the tiresomely chaotic midsection.

Production companies: See-Saw Films, Little Punk
Distributor: A24
Cast: Elle Fanning, Alex Sharp, Nicole Kidman, Matt Lucas, Ruth Wilson, AJ Lewis, Ethan Lawrence, Edward Petherbridge, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Brooke, Alice Sanders
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Screenwriter: Philippa Goslett, John Cameron Mitchell, based on the short story by Neil Gaiman
Producers: Howard Gertler, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, John Cameron Mitchell
Executive producers: Neil Gaiman, David Kosse, Rose Garnett, Hugo Heppell, Charles Auty, Thorsten Schumacher, Michael J. Werner, Winnie Lau, Peter Fornstam, Josie Ho
Director of photography: Frank DeMarco
Production designer: Helen Scott
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Music: Nico Muhly, Matmos
Original songs: Martin Tomlinson, Bryan Weller
Editor: Brian A. Kates
Animation: John Bair
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein, Emily Jacobs, Karen Lindsay-Stewart
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: HanWay Films

Rated R, 102 minutes