This movie is a mess.
Seriously. It is an ugly looking, confusingly paced, poorly acted thing that follows a script which lurches drunkenly between the incomprehensible and the banal. It is confused and focusless, any scene with more than a couple of characters turns into an exercise in geographic confusion, something of an achievement considering how small and empty so many of these locations are. It has the worst budget CGI sequences, which usually are excusable in indie films (the folks don’t have much money) but here they are disasterously conceived and feel so unneccessary. And, while I appreciate its intention in being a tonally diverse genre mashup, it does not have a strong enough control of either tone or genre to ever feel like a cohesive whole.
I did still kinda like it though.
Sure, it’s another story about the mopey cis white male teenager who needs to find some quirky surprising woman to love and lose in order to become a man. Also he’s a misunderstood artist. He’s lifted right off of the screenplay pages of John Carney’s Sing Street and is inevitably even worse the second time around.
The girl here is an alien visiting Earth on an interplanetary tour, too rebellious and free thinking to stick with the rest of the pack, longing to be immersed in a culture she does not yet understand. It’s set in Croydon in the 1970s which you think would make sense but the director, John Cameron Mitchell, was born and raised in the United States. It’s why this version of Croyden feels so flat and unspecific. It’s why Nicole Kidman turns up in a variety of bad wigs and a worse accent as an indie punk promoter.
Kidman is real bad here, between the accent and the screenplay that gives her no further solid ground to build a character around she just floats indistict through the movie. Elle Fanning does a good innocent alien, unfolding into the rhythm of human life but she is dead the moment she steps onscreen. We know what she’s here to do, be the shining star to life our drowsy hero out of his slumber and into a better way of living. It’s all that garbage.
On the other end of the scale is all the alien shit. They are designed to be ununderstandable. They wear plastic suits and their hobbies mostly involve wailing and interpretive dance. Yet, underneath all the enforced quirkery they are all so fucking boring. They have long endless circular conversations about what’s to be done with the rebellious girl and it’s all very dull really. Some of them, the ones wearing orange, seem to be into sex. They’re the ones who at least have some fun, even if their predilictions are completely thrown away by a plot that simply could not care to add detail.
Yet, paradoxically the reason why I liked it is because it is shit. Films of this level of incompetance are rarely get out there really. They certainly never star Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. It is afforded a little slack because it’s about capital P – Punk and it’s good for theming but more because its about kids like this.
I wrote a while ago about Love, Simon and how it allowed it’s characters to be broken assholes and how the existance of queer narrative play out in works trading on a defined aesthetic. How to Talk to Girls at Parties is appealing because it is so broken and abrasive and unforgiving. It is a challenge to dig into, and once you’re in each weird unmotivated choice it makes is just another attempt to kick you off. You sorta watch it like an endurance test measuring out your investment, feeling it sapped.
It is a film about being misunderstood that is literally impossible to understand. It will find its fans eventually, those people who recognise the antipathy it shows to the audience as their own. A kinship will form. Eventually someone might get very high and watch this and realise exactly what they were going for. That person won’t be me though.
Now, I know I enjoyed it, but let’s be real though. The film is a mess. I’m gonna give it two stars because the great British character actress Joanna Scanlan gets a few scenes and she is as great as ever. The rest of the joint can be happily discarded. John Cameron Mitchell’s previous work has been wild and anarchic and deranged and human, this film is what happens when you take that last part out of the equation.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is currently screening in UK cinemas
Images courtesy of StudioCanal