One of the most under-heralded aspects of John Cameron Mitchell’s filmography is just how earnest and cynicism-free his works are. He values the purity of emotional expression in all of its forms — the expression of gender identity (Hedwig), the realization of love (Shortbus), or the all-consuming nature of grief (Rabbit Hole) — and that makes him an ideal director to take on the task of adapting Neil Gaiman’s sci-fi short story How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
It’s Gaiman’s bildungsroman of punk adolescence giving way to emotional maturity, and Mitchell sinks his teeth into it. The resulting film is a collision of two wonderful styles, those being the late-’70s English punk and the early-’70s latex-wrapped science-fiction epic, and somehow Mitchell manages to pull it off with the greatest of ease. It changes tones in the same way a song changes time signatures, and it breaks all of the rules of punk cinema as well, which is why people seem to be hating it as much as they do currently. It’s weird to see a film get Speed Racer’d in real time, but I guess every generation gets its chance once every decade.
Enn (Alex Sharp) is a punk at the period right before it broke. He’s a creative kid who pours his energies into making zines and drawing comics, living at home with his single mom, imagining his jazz-playing father’s adventures out on the road. One night he heads out to raise hell and have a good time with his two best friends and, stumbling on what they initially believe to be an afterparty, soon discover that the odd inhabitants may be more than meet the eye. That’s where Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning), who may look like a teenage girl at first glance, but who is actually a centuries-old alien being who took up residence in an Earthly body alongside the rest of her race to tour the delights of England at the height of the Queen’s Jubilee. She’s sick of her life — fucking parent-teachers, they just don’t understand — and is intrigued by the alien who has entered her home talking about rebellion and full-feeling. So, she runs away with him, and their romance will change the course of a race’s history.
Though all of the ensemble is solid (with the exception of Nicole Kidman, here playing a Vivienne Westwood analogue, who is slightly miscast), Fanning is by far the MVP here, as she just goes for broke, playing her typical on-camera aloofness up to eleven, which she wields to degrees both humorous and fascinating. She’s been the best part of a number of ensembles — look no further than the film this came out up against at Cannes last year, The Beguiled — but rarely is she given such a feature outside of a Refn film.
It’s her journey as much as it is Enn’s, and the film never lets us forget that. There’s one sequence when, as pushed on by Kidman’s character, Enn takes the stage at the local punk dive, being a warehouse that doubles as a fashion hall and venue, and awkwardly stumbles through a description of her homeward, accompanied by a band that has no clue what the fuck she’s on about. She then unleashes a fire of emotion and frustration, with Enn’s help, in one of the more surreal tributes to Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains that you’ll see in cinema, and her evolution, just over the course of this one scene, should remain a highlight amongst what will hopefully turn out to be a career full of them.
As mentioned above, this is a fun collision of styles for Mitchell, who gets to mess around in Westwood’s closet and survey the latest and greatest in bizarre fetish gear. The film is full of interesting and striking locales, the most odd being the English manor house that the alien race, full of different groups that adhere to different but strict ideologies, makes into their temporary home. You’ve got weird sex shit in the attic, you’ve got odd interpretive dance (set to what one punk believes to “kraut-rock”) on the ground floor, and you’ve got Zan’s group, covered in stylish yellow, hiding out somewhere on the second floor. This is a beautiful contrast to the grayness of the brutalist English architectural landscape where Enn lives, which isn’t totally without its pleasures, like the couch that Zan and Enn find themselves on late in the picture, stashed on a bridge linking two council houses and positioned so one can get an unobstructed view of the heavens. Mitchell has always been great at crafting locales for his characters — look no further than Shortbus‘s sex club — and he brings that same wisdom to the table here as well.
It’s interesting that the critical discourse around this film is shaping up to be a record-collecting dick measuring contest, where the competing ideologies in all forms of “punk” as we know it have taken root in the minds of different writers, each who have their own idea (and knowledge) of the ethos behind one of the most amorphous movement this side of the jazz-and-golf-playing anarchists in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Though I don’t totally agree with this, it could be argued that punk initially was nothing more than a cash grab — a rock n’ roll swindle, if you will — by a group of adults looking to pry money from the disaffected youths willing to go into their stores and buy their records and clothes to be fashionable or to feel a part of something.
Punk, to me at least, was never about what the Malcolm McLarens of the world tried to market to you: It was a germ of an idea that only had meaning when its adherents gave it their own. So Mitchell’s vision of a punk coming-of-age may not fit in the hell-raising category that so many people want it to be, but I quite appreciated the tenderness of How to Talk to Girls at Parties and its deeply-felt belief that the most punk thing you can do is give a shit, to love fully and earnestly.