One of the worst ways to make a cult movie is to set out to make a cult movie. The true gems of the genre tend to be lucky—or, just as often, unlucky—accidents. They are films that aspired to be “normal,” or even “good,” but missed the mark and instead stumbled into some glorious and impossible-to-replicate combination of eccentricity, visceral shock, bewilderment, and/or outright awfulness. The Room, to cite a classic of the last category recently revived by James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, is memorable precisely because of its comprehensive failure ever to be, for even an instant, the tragic, heartbreaking romance it was intended to be.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties, by contrast, seems precisely the film its director, John Cameron Mitchell, intended it to be—and that’s its fundamental problem. A punk-rock-meets-aliens story of young romance, it finds itself uncomfortably on the spectrum somewhere between Earth Girls Are Easy and Liquid Sky: neither good enough to be a conventional success nor weird enough to be a cult hit.
The year is 1977, and Enn (Alex Sharp)—the name is short for “Henry”—is an aficionado of the punk-rock scene in Croydon, south of London. (“I used to be in Despair,” one rocker explains amusingly. “Now I’m in a band called Lipstick that was put together from the remnants of Despair.”) Late one night after a show, Enn and a pair of mates find themselves at an offbeat house party, where he does, in fact, talk to what he believes is a girl. From California.