After 70 years you’d think they’d seen it all at Cannes, but Brit-punk coming of age sci-fi How to Talk to Girls at Parties features two noteworthy firsts for the fest. Number one: it’s set entirely in and around the unlikely London suburb of Croydon. And number two: it features a punks vs b-movie-aliens melee in which a shock-wigged Nicole Kidman leads the charge to cries of “We are England”. Happily, the film is ace too.
Based on the 18-page short story by American Gods (opens in new tab)' Neil Gaiman, it’s been expanded and adapted by John Cameron Mitchell, who made queer classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch (opens in new tab), but hasn't been seen on the big screen since 2010's tragi-comic Rabbit Hole (opens in new tab). How to Talk to Girls… is a joyous return to the anarchic, punk-fuelled spirit of his early work.
Alex Sharp plays Enn (short for Henry). Along with his two punk pals they run a little-read fanzine called Virys, trash talk Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee celebrations (the film is set in 1977) and are quick to denounce The Clash for selling out to a major record label. One night, following a particularly frenzied gig hosted by Kidman’s punk queen Boadicea, the trio stumble across a decrepit house playing extraterrestrial trance and discover a whole world of weirdness inside. In each room a different set of colour co-ordianted humanoids are dancing in ways that only make sense if it’s your first day on Earth, which it happens to be for this community of oddball ETs. The zany travellers aren’t unfriendly though, quite the opposite. Enn’s friend Vic (Abraham Lewis) gets intimately familiar with one sex-obsessed sect – the Stellas – led by Ruth Wilson in a comically unflattering latex body suit. Enn meanwhile befriends Zan (Elle Fanning), a member of ‘fourth colony manifests’ who preach individuality, but don’t practice it. Frustrated, Zan flees with Enn to experience the world and “further access the punk”.
What follows is a classic fish out of water, culture clash romcom, Romeo and Juliet retold with a punk and one of the aliens from Galaxy Quest. But beneath the weirdness How to Talk to Girls… is disarmingly sweet. With no idea how to use her body, Zan and Enn’s awkward first kiss turns into a game of Twister, for example. As the two visit record shops and tour the town’s punk landmarks, members of Zan’s commune body hop into strangers in an effort to convince her to return before the ‘Exit’ - an ominous eviction lent sledgehammer-subtle political commentary by the fact the aliens spend a chunk of the film wearing union jack ponchos.
As Zan, Fanning is savvy casting – a perfect romcom lead, but with her elongated neck, Leia buns and impish features she seems out of this world from first sight, deadpanning her way through the film to amusing effect. Tony Award-winning stage actor Alex Sharp debuts here and makes a memorable first impression as the young punk who sees the music and its mentality as a way to break free from his humdrum surroundings. Kidman meanwhile, reuniting with Mitchell following Rabbit Hole, plays a fashion designer and band manager who gets all the film’s best zingers. “Punk really is the greatest thing that happened to ugly people” she says in a hilarious, but respectably decent east end accent. She’s part Peggy Mitchell, part Malcolm McLaren.
Naturally for a film that’s at least partly about the early days of punk, the music is formidable. An early sequence sees a Sex Pistols-style troupe cause a ruckus in a pub with an earworm that threatens to never leave your brain, while Fanning and Sharp blow the roof off the building (metaphorically, but almost literally) with an explosive performance that has you itching to stand up and start a mosh pit in front of the screen.
Amusingly, the aliens here are straight out of a hokey b-movie, or sci-fi spoof like Coneheads, speaking in empty mantras and worshiping a nonsense religion. At times it can get a little too silly for its own good, and Mitchell fumbles the final stretch by hingeing his film’s climactic dilemma on poorly explained extraterrestrial jargon that the rest of the film has gone to pains to make light of. But this gleefully camp and riotously experimental genre smash up is as brilliant as it is bonkers.