In 2001, John Cameron Mitchell roared onto the film scene like a bat out of hell with Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Based on his daring Off-Broadway show, this outrageous rock musical was celebrated for its poignant tale of self-love and the dynamic spectacle of its sensational song numbers. Remarkably, Mitchell brought the experience of the live show into the movie theater, creating a sense of enchanting spontaneity that transformed the audiences who saw it. And that included me.
Hedwig And The Angry Inch was one of the first films I’d see after moving out of my parents’ house, my little hometown, and to New York City. I was intrigued by the music teased on the film’s website. But nothing could prepare me for the sheer magnetism of Mitchell in the titular role, a rock goddess electric with passion, vulnerability, and rage. I still cherish the memory of watching that film in theaters. Mitchell’s campy yet cerebral visuals had me awestruck, my jaw dropped, my heart pounding so hard it might burst through my ribs. It felt like a jagged path to a whole new world was ripped open before me. Hedwig’s burning wit, onstage ferocity, and never-say-die attitude were intoxicating and inspiring. Since, he’s made other films, the frankly sexual Shortbus and the deeply haunting Rabbit Hole. But none hit me as hard or as deeply as Hedwig did. So, it was with a giddy anticipation I awaited How To Talk To Girls At Parties, Mitchell’s return to the movie musical after 16 years.
The film has been bumping around the festival circuit since last spring, and the buzz has been underwhelming to bad. But I remained optimistic. After all, it looked outstanding on paper. Mitchell adapts geek god Neil Gaiman’s short story of boy meets alien girl. Art house darling Elle Fanning stars opposite Tony winner Alex Sharp (The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time). Academy-Award winner Nicole Kidman co-stars as a punk rock queen guaranteed to steal the show (she does!). And to give some grit to its spacey tale, the whole thing is set in ’80s punk scene of the scruffy London suburb of Croydon. Despite the dark cloud of critical grumbling hanging over the film, I clung to my love of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and hope that Mitchell would astound me once more. I was ready and eager to be rattled to my core. But How To Talk To Girls At Parties wasn’t up to the task.
Where Hedwig felt urgent and alive, How To Talk To Girls At Parties feels nostalgic and canned. Sure, Mitchell and his co-writer Philippa Goslett have funky fun with the various sects of an alien family. When Enn (Sharp) and his two best mates follow-up a punk concert by crashing this extraterrestrial clan’s house party, they’re exposed to a barrage of bizarre revelers in vibrantly colored rubber garments. There’s whale-like crooning accompanied by vogue-like dancing, acrobatics, and kinky sex. Mitchell brings in Matt Lucas and Ruth Wilson to goose these bits with humor and verve. Wilson is especially funny when drunkenly slumping in her bawdy rubber catsuit and kvetching about the humdrum routine of their rituals. But the odd alien bits are jolts amid a sea of dreamy YA romance that feels woefully timid.
Enn and Zan, Sharp and Fanning have a charming chemistry, but despite a plot that tangles teen rebellion into cannibalism, sexual exploration, and potential punk rock stardom, their onscreen romance feels muted. Perhaps its Fanning’s doe-eyed naiveté, as she says things like, “Do more punk to me.” Perhaps it’s that Goslett and Mitchell’s heady references to chakras and evolution are drowned out by the overwhelming conventionality of their Manic Pixie Dream Girl premise. Perhaps it’s that “punk” is presented less an aesthetic or movement, and more a catchall for “parents just don’t understand.”
There are sparks when the punk couple performs an impromptu song, and roar into each other’s faces and at the crowd, unleashing the dizzying trauma of teendom through smash-and-grab lyrics and sky-scorching screeches. Here it seems How To Talk To Girls At Parties scratches at its own promise. Oh, what surreal and stupendous fun could have been had when small-town punks and extraterrestrial tourists see their cultures clash! Mitchell gives us glimpses of this as Zan revels in dancing, pancakes and using the loo. But most of the tale is focused on Enn’s all-consuming crush on Zan, and everything else takes a backseat to their surprisingly prim romance. Then, things fall into a rough-and-tumble resolution with much running around and little satisfaction.
Maybe my hopes were too high for How To Talk To Girls At Parties. It may be better appreciated by teens still trapped by their wicked little towns or oddball families (R-rating be damned). Mitchell has made a sweetly strange and tender tale of young love, which spins into realms well outside Gaiman’s original conceit. It relishes the beauty and blankness of its otherworldly dream girl and makes a historic hero of its mildly rebellious teen boy. But to me, it all felt soft, safe, and cute. And frankly, I’ve come to expect much more from Mitchell than cute.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com