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Any and all movies about punk rock should be approached with a certain degree of skepticism. What are are the odds that the spirit of anarchy can make its way through the gauntlet of the Hollywood machine untainted by corporatism? It actually happens more often than you think. Classics like Sid and Nancy, Repo Man, and We Are the Best! somehow made it into cinemas and were celebrated for getting punk right. Still, we should be on guard for poseurs.
So what about this new one, How to Talk to Girls at Parties? Is it really punk? Turns out it’s gloriously goofy enough to qualify. The film by John Cameron Mitchell tracks the weekend courtship of Enn (Alex Sharp), a dedicated punk in late ’70s Britain, and Zan (Elle Fanning), a beautiful, rebellious alien visiting Earth on a tour of the universe. On the hunt for a good time, Enn and his mates stumble upon a house where some sort of modern art party seems to be happening. Beautiful women in day-glo spandex show them around, while bizarre rituals are happening in every room, from trance-dancing to advanced anal play. “They must be from Los Angeles,” one mutters.
In one corner, Enn finds the angelic Zan looking to break free from her group—essentially, run away from home for a little while—so she joins him for a life-affirming weekend, in which Enn educates her about the joys of romance and rock ’n’ roll. Her ignorance of basic human concepts like kissing and dancing make her a dead giveaway, but it takes Enn, who is blinded by her beauty, quite some time to figure out her extraterrestrial origins.
It’s a wise choice. A different film might have lingered on this discovery process even longer, but the script by Mitchell and Philippa Goslett (based on a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman) eyes a deeper truth, one of freedom, unbridled passions, and the intensity of young love, which, it is argued, can transcend galaxies. How to Talk to Girls at Parties expresses no skepticism toward these virtues. It celebrates them wholly and unabashedly.
Embodying this romance are Sharp and Fanning, who both give immaculate performances as the literally star-crossed lovers. Sharp has a roguish charm, with the black circles under his eyes indicating either a wisdom beyond his years or too many long nights of childish rambunctiousness. While he grounds the often psychedelic plot in human charm, Fanning elevates it with an ethereal performance. It’s a role that might have made a generation of teenage boys fall in love with her, if movies like this one were still seen by millions. She acts every scene with an open heart, embracing her character’s natural naivete and total silliness. She’s a joy to watch.
As their weekend draws to a close, however, cinematic conventions spring up around Enn and Zan. Her alien family back at the party house reveal a nefarious scheme that only Zan can stop, and before you know it, she’s faced with the kind of difficult choice that only occurs in movies about love and sacrifice. And so the question returns: Is that punk? We also can’t ignore Nicole Kidman in a supporting role as a club owner. Having an A-lister and Oscar winner in your movie is certainly not punk. Neither is the film’s underlying narrative, which teaches us that conventional love between a somewhat nerdy young man and an out-of-his-league young blonde is not only plausible but of the highest social value.
Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement—and this praise goes squarely to Mitchell—is that it conjures up such an indomitable spirit of joy and revolution that it makes you forget all that’s conventional about it. We can nitpick all we like, but How to Talk to Girls at Parties doesn’t give a fuck what we think. There’s nothing more punk than that.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market.