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.
Alas, the cross-cultural complications are soon revealed to go far deeper. The “girl,” Zan (Elle Fanning), is actually a member of an alien colony taking part in a tradition of visiting a foreign world and assuming the form of its inhabitants. (Think of it as a kind of extraterrestrial Rumspringa.) In a nice touch, they’ve chosen Croydon because central London was booked up for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
Enn likes Zan, and Zan likes Enn. She requests that he help her to “further access the punk,” and he obliges. He comes to terms with the fact that when she begins a kiss she has a tendency to briefly throw up in her partner’s mouth. It turns out that her alien posse descends from six different races—identifiable by the colors of their skintight bodysuits—all of whom despoiled their home planets through overpopulation and resource misuse. (Between Thanos and these folks, Thomas Malthus is having quite a cinematic year, even if all his new disciples seem to be from space.) The colony’s solution to this problem is for the elder aliens, called “parent-teachers,” to complete the transgalactic field trip to Earth by eating their “children.” As one explains, in what may or may not be a reference to Where the Wild Things Are: “First the loving, then the eating.”
The movie is diverting enough for a while. Sharp and (especially) Fanning are likable co-leads, and Nicole Kidman has fun in a small role as Queen Boadicea, a punk impresario “at the fag end of my fertility.” (That’s fag as in a cigarette butt.) But ultimately, the center holds too well: How to Talk to Girls at Parties is just a little too tame, too nice, too—whatever the opposite of punk is.
Mitchell co-wrote the screenplay with Philippa Goslett, based on a short story by Neil Gaiman. But Mitchell is also, most famously, the artist responsible for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which he cowrote and starred in onstage before directing the 2001 screen adaptation. And if there’s anything that could have lifted How to Talk to Girls at Parties above its amiable humdrum, it’s a touch of Hedwig’s profane, boundary-demolishing perversity. Aliens? Punk-rockers? “Parent-teachers”? Hedwig would have eaten them all alive, and then come back for an encore.