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SITGES 2017

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How to Talk to Girls at Parties: Aliens in punk-era London

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- Neil Gaiman’s short story is transformed into a heart-warming and fun-to-watch cross-genre film experience by US director John Cameron Mitchell

How to Talk to Girls at Parties: Aliens in punk-era London
Elle Fanning and Alex Sharp in How to Talk to Girls at Parties

The idea of aliens meeting punk-rock teenagers in 1977 Croydon, London, seems outlandish, but it is actually the subject of Neil Gaiman’s short story adapted for the screen by Philippa Goslett and John Cameron Mitchell, who is also the director. How to Talk to Girls at Parties [+see also:
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, shown in the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival’s New Visions One programme, crams a lot of ideas, tropes and genres into the mix. Basically, it is a coming-of-age romantic comedy, science-fiction fish-out-of-water comedy, and a kind of musical period piece dealing with the subjects of young love and conformity versus individuality. All of that blended together should not theoretically work that well, but somehow it does just enough to make it a pleasurable film experience with the potential for a cult following in the future.

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Our protagonist, Enn (young Broadway actor Alex Sharp in his first screen role), spends his days editing a fanzine and hanging out with his two friends Vic (AJ Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence). After a gig they attend in the den of punk queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman) goes awry, they get lost on their way to an after-party, ending up in a house inhabited by a crew of aliens with human masks who are on a research mission. It is here that Enn meets Zen (Elle Fanning), a curious girl who wants to get away from the party and do some surveying on her own. Since she is attracted to Enn, she is about to learn a great deal about punk music, culture and attitude. And so the adventure begins!

How to Talk to Girls at Parties works so well in its sheer ridiculousness mainly because of its fast pacing with a lot of snappy dialogues, and the sense for period details laced with campy aesthetics. Plus, it also features some of the funniest jokes this year, such as Zen’s first kiss with someone always being followed by vomiting, aliens dressed in Union Jack raincoats, like stereotypical naive tourists, and punk teens assuming that the alien crew is a Californian cult. A lot of attention has been paid to details such as recreating Gaiman’s detailed alien class system and society structure, which has been achieved by means of colour-coding and superb animation sequences. The whole lore is incorporated efficiently into the script, making the rhythm smooth. The casting of the leads is also spot-on: Sharp is compelling as a young punk enthusiast, while the role of a curious alien suits Fanning perfectly.

However, not all of the aspects of the film are so successful. Kidman overacts her role of a punk elder, mistaking it for campy charm and letting her accent drift from Cockney to Aussie and back again. In addition, the whole punk scene remains superficial for the duration of the running time, reducing the movement to several worn-out clichés and name-dropping of bands and artists, which is strange, given that John Cameron Mitchell is the filmmaker behind one of the most iconic punk movies of all time, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Finally, the tonal shift in the third act from pure fun to something more serious seems fairly abrupt but is also somewhat predictable in accordance with the template of an aliens-studying-Earth comedy. None of this weighs down the film too much, however, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties brings just enough heart-warming fun to its viewers.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties was produced by US outfit Little Punk and British firm See-Saw Films. It is sold abroad by the UK’s HanWay Films.

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